Actions

Work Header

Erik

Chapter Text

Andre Torres has never flown first class before, so he thoroughly enjoys the trip from LAX to JFK. This time is technically billable so he makes a few notes about his client’s impossible situation, but mostly he takes it all in. Scotch with lunch? Absolutely! Warm cookie? Don’t mind if I do. He guiltily slips the tiny salt and pepper shakers from the meal into his carry-on bag. Maribella will appreciate the souvenir when he tells her all about it.

Maribella has probably already made up the guest room, such as it is. In truth, the guest room also contains boxes of Christmas decorations, off-season clothes, and books they still haven’t found a place for. They had intended to renovate the entire house to make the most of their limited storage and had been doing quite well until Maribella got pregnant. The tiny nursery was the last renovation they finished together and god knows when they’ll get back to work; maybe when Miranda goes to school in four years.

As interesting as these last few days have been, Andre cannot wait to get back to his wife and baby girl. After five years of marriage he is still very much in love with his wife, maybe more than ever since he became a father. Miranda is in the very mobile baby stage, getting brighter and more interesting every day. When they talked last night Maribella had mentioned that she’s starting to babble in near words, something that seems incredible. It occurs to Andre that while Miranda is, without a doubt, the most delightful child ever born, it might be unsettling for his client to share space with a baby. Did Olrik/Ivan/Erik grow up with siblings? As strange as the man is, he didn’t hatch from an egg in some enchanted forest. There must be family. Hell, there might even be children somewhere - probably fully grown or even middle-aged.

With half an hour to go before landing, Andre asks for another Scotch which is brought to him with a little ceramic dish of hot nuts.The man across the aisle gives him a look that Andre has seen hundreds of times in his life; the what-are-you-doing-here look. He saw it when he was admitted to the gifted and talented magnet school, when he started university at sixteen, and when he graduated in the top 50 at Harvard law. Andre gives the man a steady, questioning look in return until he turns away in confusion. Andre sips his scotch in contentment. He’ll go wherever the hell he pleases and anyone who objects can kiss his ass. Andre is headed for the top, and unless he’s badly miscalculated, his new pet client will help him get there.

***

The arrivals lounge at JFK is crowded but Andre has no trouble spotting his client. Erik is pacing rapidly with his duffle slung over his shoulder. It occurs to Andre that the boy is worth millions but everything that belongs to him - this new incarnation at least - can fit in a carry-on with room to spare. Andre waves him over and waits for his own luggage to arrive. Erik’s flight was fine, of course. Unlike Andre, Erik wasn’t able to enjoy a scotch, but he is surprisingly enthusiastic about the movie, which he found very funny.

“I’m going to find more of this Tarantino fellow’s work. If we end up going the foster family route, they’ll have to be liberal about films.”

“Absolutely. I can’t think of a fate worse than being stuck with Disney movies.”

Erik doesn’t get the reference, but Andre doesn’t bother explaining because his bag is on the carousel and he wants to get out of there. As they step out into a light spring shower Erik spots a town car and driver holding a cardboard sign with Andre’s name on it..

“There’s Bill Fordyce,” the boy whispers. "You’ll have to introduce me as I’m not supposed to know him.”

Torres shakes hands with the driver, noting that Bill has a gun in his shoulder holster and is very struck by the Redwing heir’s appearance.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Ostrovsky. Got to say, you’re the image of your dad.”

“Oh, geez. Please call me Erik. This is all still really weird for me.”

Andre rolls his eyes, but he has to concede that “bashful newcomer” is a good approach to this. Erik won’t be feared just yet, so he might as well be liked.

On the way to Brooklyn Andre gives the kid one last chance to change his mind. The house in Bed Stuy is small and the neighborhood is decent, but far from exclusive.

“I’ve spent time in some pretty cramped quarters, Andre,” he answers in a low voice. No point in attracting Bill’s attention. “Frankly I’m surprised you even have a house at your age given the real estate market in this crazy city.”

“It’s a row house, and it belonged to Maribella’s grandparents. Luckily for us, they kept it in the family and we ended up with it when her parents moved to Florida. It’s a great deal but it needs work, so we rent out the side that’s in better condition to build up a renovation account. The tenants are a couple with no kids. You probably won’t even see them.”

Erik nods and thinks for a moment. “None of my business, so feel free to tell me to go to hell, but does your wife’s family have money?”

Andre isn’t offended, exactly, but he is surprised. “Her maternal grandparents were Cuban immigrants and owning a home was an incredible thing for them. They got dozens of offers to sell but refused because they wanted a legacy and ended up buying the second unit. Her dad is a plumber, so he does okay, and her mother was a visiting nurse until she retired last year.”

“And your parents were similar?”

“My dad has his own book keeping business and my mom is a tailor. They’re both semi-retired now though. Why so curious?”

“I was just thinking about my old lawyer in London. Thomas Delaney. He was a smart son-of-a-bitch. Got me out of a lot of situations. He came from absolutely nothing and married a rich girl and it worked out for him. Her money gave him a boost but good god, did he run with it. I suppose that kind of marriage is very old-fashioned these days.”

“No, I get it. Marriage is a partnership in every way, and that includes money, even if it is tacky to acknowledge it. Were they happy?”

“Oh, sure. Still are, as far as I know. Delaney retired to the country ten years ago. Probably all grandkids and holidays now. Actually, I should check up on him. He’s about my age. The age I was, of course.”

“Of course.” Andre would like to know more about the “situations” Erik is referring to, but that will keep for another day.

***

Traffic is comparatively light, that is to say, not impossible, so they get to the house a little before 7 p.m. Bill pops the trunk and gives Andre a significant look as Erik hauls his bag out of the trunk without waiting for help. Andre pretends to fuss with his own luggage as the kid heads up the stairs.
“You here for the weekend?” He says in an undertone.

“Only until eight, but don’t worry, people will be around. You just won’t see them. I’ll be back Monday at nine.”

Andre shakes the drivers hand and catches up with Erik who is shifting from one foot to another on the porch.

“Were you checking on security?”

“Of course. It won’t be obtrusive.”

“I hire the best. You know that .”

***

Erik meets the family with a subdued gallantry rather absurd in a teenager. He reassures Maribella that the tiny guest room will be more than enough and unpacks his bag while the couple goes about their evening routine. Dinner is reheated enchiladas and sautéed greens with rice. Young Erik doesn’t talk much, but he cleans his plate without complaint and has three store-bought cookies for dessert. He helps clear the table and offers to help Andre with the dishes. Andre almost shoos him off until he realizes that Erik needs a break from new people, especially since one is a babbling infant.

Erik dries the dishes and puts them away quickly and efficiently, as Andre notes out loud.

“I didn’t always have servants, Andre,” Erik replies, with minimal sarcasm. I’ve been in a few combat units, not to mention a few prisons,” he adds, dropping his voice. “I could survive on my own just fine, even without money.”

“Of course you could. I just assumed it had been a while since you’d lived with a family.” Getting no response, Andre switches gears. “You were my Uncle Joe’s age. He still repairs his own clothes, smokes his own fish, grows some of his produce, keeps his place immaculate. I forget that these things were normal for his generation.”

“I used to have a wooden darning egg. Kept it in my kit along with a needle case on every campaign. I wonder if it’s still in a trunk somewhere.”

“Can you cook?”

“A few things, not the way people do today.”

“Ah, yes! Grill a martini, fry a side of bacon.”

“Corned beef hash, boeuf bourguignon, roast leg of lamb. Of course, it was all cabbage and potatoes when I was growing up. Even pork was scarce - ” the boy stops abruptly and his face goes stony. He doesn’t say another word until the dishes are done.

***

Andre and Maribella retire to the living room, ostensibly to watch television, but actually to dote on the baby and tie off loose ends of work before the weekend. Like Andre, Maribella is a lawyer, but she works for a non-profit that reviews old cases to free innocents from prison. Erik isn’t interested in Seinfeld, so he asks permission to borrow from the bookshelves, eventually settling down on the floor with Snow Falling on Cedars. Andre takes Miranda out of her mother’s arms to put her down for the night, breaking Maribella’s attention for a moment.

“Oh, geez. Erik?” She begins. “That’s a great book but it has some, uh, pretty adult themes.”

Andre watches as Erik looks up in disbelief. He stares for a moment, biting back his first response. Finally, he says, “It’s all right, ma’am. I know where babies come from.”

Maribella looks silly for a second, then laughs. “Of course you do. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m so used to protecting a baby I clean forgot what I was reading at your age.”

“Terrible things?”

“Oh, scandalous!” She grins and follows Andre in the nursery.

When they return the boy excuses himself. He wants to read and do a little work, whatever that means. Andre gives him a pen and a spare legal pad, and makes sure the spare room has water and extra blankets, just in case. His wife has two glasses of wine waiting when he returns.

“Ah, blessed quiet.”

“Yeah. That Erik is a real blabbermouth.”

“He’s on his best behavior right now. You don’t mind?”

“No, not for a few days anyway. At least this will give him a chance to learn what halfway normal people act like. He’s got military school written all over him”

“Yeah? What are his tells?”

She ticks off on her fingers. “His clothes are way too pressed and tucked. He practically bowed when we met. He stood at parade rest when he was looking at the books. He said the word ‘ma’am’ and wasn’t awkward. Oh, and did you see the way he stowed his things? I bet you ten dollars that tomorrow morning I can bounce a quarter off his bed.”

“You’re a detective. You’re right, though, he hasn’t been to a normal American school. I guess he does act pretty adult for his age.”

“Mmm. The way he dresses doesn’t help. Maybe a private school would be best. At least everyone looks kind of goofy in a uniform.”

Maribella changes the subject to work drama, but Andre’s mind keeps straying to what she’s said about Erik. Just how is he going to tell his employer that he looks like a nerd?

Chapter Text

Saturday morning is a frenzy at the Gutierrez-Torres household. Andre has a load of laundry in the wash before Maribella makes the coffee. She prepares the baby’s breakfast on one side of the modest kitchen while Andre preps a giant frittata on the other. In a miracle of cooperation there’s a full breakfast on the table, music on the stereo, and laundry in the dryer before nine o’clock. They eat the frittata with toast and cantaloupe. Andre and Maribella pass the baby back and forth and take turns eating. Luckily, Miranda is a happy little thing, not fussy about who holds her. She even reaches out to Erik, laughing.

The main topic of conversation is what to do with the precious two days ahead. Maribella wants to visit the farmers’ market and maybe go to Herbert Von King park since the weather is supposed to be decent. Andre needs to get a few things at the hardware store, maybe do some work in the tiny yard. There was a thriving garden when Maribella’s parents lived in the place, but a series of renters have left it overgrown and nearly useless. Andre would like to reclaim the space so his children can eat tomatoes and strawberries from their own land.

Of course, the couple wants to take care of their young guest as well. Erik is willing to go to the park, or the market, or shopping, whatever they like, but he has a few requests. First, he wants to go off on his own this afternoon - alone except for a Redwing bodyguard - on a personal errand. Second, he wants the family to go out and do something together this evening, maybe a movie? Quick dinner? It doesn’t really matter, but his birthday was yesterday and he’d like to celebrate.

That changes everything. Of course they’ll go out this evening. Maribella grabs a stack of flyers from nearby theaters and hands them to the boy.

“I’m going to regret this, but pick whatever you like.” She takes the baby off for her bath and leaves the menfolk to clean up.

“So what are you being so secretive about?” Andre asks. “Anything I can help you with?”

“Secretive? No. It’s nothing. I want to see what people my 'age' are wearing. When we were in L.A. I realized that I didn’t quite look the part. It didn’t matter in Japan - I barely left the house - but here I need to fit in better. I’m going to need things for the summer and the school year as well, but that will have to wait.”

“We can get whatever you want. Redwing will pay.” Andre is pleased that Erik has figured this out on his own.

“They will, more than you might think. I’m not positive on the timing, but I’m going to grow six inches in the next year and a half, maybe more, and eventually wear a size 11 shoe. These are nines. I don’t think I actually stopped growing until I was 18, so there’s no point in buying a lot of clothes just yet.” He scratches at his chin. “I’m going to need a new razor, too. I don’t want to deal with patches of fuzz this time around. There are a lot of things I don’t have to put up with now.”

Andre can’t very well object to any other that. He calls Fordyce from Redwing and arranges for a car to pick the kid up at 11 a.m. Maribella makes her own series of calls and arranges for her cousin to look after the baby. Candy is in her final year of Business Admin. at Brooklyn College and is willing to watch the baby (and study, and raid their fridge) until 10 p.m., but then she has a party to get to. It’s decided: Maribella, Andre, and Miranda will shop today, Erik will go off on his own, but they’ll all meet back at the house at 4, get some food and catch the early show.

The day is fairly productive for Andre and Maribella. They see Erik into a car driven by a Mr. Ito, who looks like someone’s grandpa, but is armed to the teeth. They pack up the baby and all her gear and trundle from one shop to another, increasing their load bit by bit with seeds, some hooks and brackets, a sunhat for Miranda, their dry-cleaning from the previous week. Andre puts in an order for plants and compost, and Maribella buys Sade’s Love Deluxe, which she’s been wanting for ages. Rather than have a full lunch they split a sandwich and give Miranda all her little snacks.

They're putting away their treasures when they hear a car pull up. Maribella goes to the window and laughs. “Did you talk to the kid about his clothes?”

“He brought it up. Why? Oh, my god.”

They watch Erik wave Mr. Ito goodbye and run up the stairs with a shopping bag. Having known Mr. Ostrovsky senior, as he prefers to think of the older version, Andre had expected young Erik to go for the dandiest version of what’s fashionable for men in 1995. Instead, well, he hasn’t gone full grunge, but it’s close.

“Very nice!” He says, greeting the boy. “I like the hair.”

Erik sports a modest undercut, just a little full and floppy on top and brushed to one side. He hasn’t made the mistake of a centre part which would only emphasize his nose and the length of his face. He’s wearing black Docs, slightly baggy black jeans and a navy peacoat which he hangs up carefully. Underneath he’s got on a grey t-shirt and an oversized solid blue flannel shirt worn like a jacket.

“Looking good,” says Maribella. “What else did you get?”

Erik ducks his head for all the world like a shy teenager, although Andre notices that his color doesn’t change. “Just a few t-shirts. I don’t want to buy a lot of things until closer to the school year.”

“Makes sense.”

The Italian restaurant is a small local joint with a limited menu, but it’s family-owned and the food really is good. Andre and Maribella order the cheese tortellini and chicken scallopini to split, so each gets a share of their favorite dishes. Erik has the fried artichoke starter and tagliatelle with lamb ragu. He scarfs down his tiramisu while the adults drink coffee. How nice it must be to have the appetite of a teen and the palate of someone who’s travelled the world.

Afterwards they hit the early show of A Shallow Grave. It’s the kind dark comedy that Andre barely tolerates, but Maribella and the kid seem to find it hilarious. They talk about it all the way home and recommend it to Candy who just rolls her eyes and makes her report. Miranda was perfectly happy and was changed before bed. She’s been sound asleep since nine.

Erik helps Andre button up the house as Maribella checks on the baby. When she gets back, Erik says goodnight. He’s going to read and give them some space.

“Not much of a wild birthday for you,” Maribella says, a little ruefully.

“Actually it was a great birthday. Best I can remember.” The boy gives them a short bow and leaves them alone.

***

Sunday is sacred to Andre and Maribella, not in the sense that they go to church but in that Maribella and Andre don’t talk shop or look at their work notes at all. They all sleep in as much as Miranda allows and hold off on breakfast. They pack up all the baby’s things and take Erik to a market area he’s never seen despite his more than twenty years in New York City.

Maribella wants to make arroz con pollo and plantains for dinner, so they browse the stalls finding all the ingredients before grabbing breakfast sandwiches. Hunger appeased, they continue shopping for the week, loading their bags with peppers, mushrooms, sausages, fresh eggs, cuban bread and the like. Erik has some of his own cash, obtained with the help of Mr. Ito, and comes back from a detour with pastries, cheese, and a large bunch of tulips still in bud, a small thank-you gift. Andre and Maribella dance to a Latin jazz trio playing in the square, leaving Erik to rock a sleeping Miranda in her carrier. Three teen girls in short skirts and tights pass by, laughing to themselves. The boldest looking back at him.

“Is that your baby?”

“Only for the next ten minutes.” The girls giggle and move on. Erik watches them leave, registering both the fact that his body is reacting to their presence and that this reaction is both inappropriate and entirely natural.

Andre takes over baby duties and Maribella pulls the protesting Erik to his feet. She shows him the basic cha-cha steps. He catches on quickly, of course, because this is a repeat of a lesson another woman taught him almost sixty years ago. He allows himself to enjoy the music, the crowd, the smile of a nice girl (woman, older woman at that, remember?). This isn’t exactly what he came back to youth for, but what the hell? Maybe dancing will be more of a thing in this life.

Back home, Erik attaches himself to Maribella. He wants to learn how to make this new dish, because education is never wasted and it sounds like something he’ll want to eat again. Andre tends to his daughter and watches in amusement as his client chops and stirs and avoids answering Maribella’s many questions. He admits that no, he doesn’t know where he wants to go to school. Not military school for sure, otherwise? No idea? New York? Vermont? Hawaii? Not sure about electives or sports. What are those, anyway? College? Hasn’t given it a thought. Girls? Not in a long time. Hobbies? Erik grins and for a second Andre is afraid he’s going to say something about collecting Asian antiques, but instead the boy says he’s thinking of learning to cook Cuban food, earning him a gentle swat from Maribella.

They end up making a feast that lasts for hours. Once again, cleanup is left to Andre and Erik while Maribella looks after the baby and puts out work clothes for herself and her husband. Andre engineered this, figuring correctly that his client would want a little alone time.

“Have you had a good weekend?”

“Of course.” The boy stops drying dishes. “That was rude. I keep forgetting that I’m a stranger and a guest and that you’re not on the clock."

“I accept your almost apology.”

Erik grunts a short laugh. “This is a hard part to get into, although the makeup at least is perfect. It’s not just that I don’t remember what it was like to be this age, I really don’t know how people this age act now. I have to learn all that, and also figure out a way to run my company. Trust or not I’m not letting it go to hell in the next ten years.”
“I can see why you’re not all that concerned about school electives.”

“And yet I need to be, don’t I? I have to grow into my life. That means school, college, long-term thinking. Longer than I’d imagined.” He sighs deeply.

And it’s not like you were a long term thinker for anything but business the first time around, Andre thinks. “My advice, as your lawyer and friend, is to enjoy what comes. You’re going to be busy starting tomorrow and this might be more difficult than you think”

“What’s the agenda?”

“Tomorrow we go upstate and arrange a whole bunch of documents, which I hope won't take too long. It will be tedious, but that’s how it goes. Tuesday is medical appointments all day.”

“Oh, lord.”

“It will be okay.”

“Mmm. Easy to say.”

“Wednesday we go downtown and visit Redwing. I talked to Mr. Shaw and he’s set it up with your executive team. At least two will be there.”

“And I want to see my old apartment I mean, it's still my apartment.”

“He’s on it. And we're going to pick up your bank book. You shouldn't have to ask security guards to advance you spending money.”

“How was Michael?”

“Efficient, polite. He said he misses Mr. Ostrovsky and looks forward to meeting young Mr. Ostrovsky.”

“Just to let you know, you will get some pushback from Redwing one way or another. They’ll want a say in my ‘upbringing’ and housing situation.”

“Oh, I’ve already had pushback. Mr. Hassan was after me to produce you when you were still in Japan.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him that he could cool his heels while a grieving child processed his father’s death. I also explained in great detail my powers and responsibilities as your legal guardian under the term of Mr. Ostrovsky’s will.”

“And he left it at that?”

“Of course not! He and Ms. Huttering have been calling me at least once a week ‘just to touch base.’ Luckily the provisions of the will are absolutely clear and airtight or they’d have scooped you up long ago.”

“Christ. Of course, I’ll still have to let one of them mentor me. Probably Hassan. There won’t be any peace otherwise.”

“It’s going to be a long ten years for you if you’re hellbent on running Redwing.”

“I will learn to be patient. And I’ll be busy.”

“Hmm. In the middle of all this can I ask you to give a thought to your living situation?”

“I have been thinking about it but I keep hitting a wall. What I need from you is a series of choices, four or five models I can consider. You know what’s possible for a poor little rich boy, and you know people.”

“I may have explored some options while you were in Japan. And you can stay with us as long as you need to."

“One or two more days at the most. You and Maribella have been very hospitable, but it’s a lot to ask and I don’t want to be a burden. Not any more than I have to, at least. I can’t be on holiday forever.”

They hear Maribella leaving the baby’s room. Falling silent, they put away the last of the dishes. Maribella pours two full glasses of red wine for herself and Andre, and an inch for Erik.

“Birthday weekend!” They toast, and head into the living room to read and listen to music. Andre decides he will try to convince his client to make the “holiday” last a little longer. There’s a silly saying that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood, but in this case it is something worth shooting for.

Chapter Text

Normally Andre takes public transit to work, but this drizzly Monday morning he gets to enjoy his second cup of coffee at home in as much leisure as he can manage between making notes for his “Erik” file and tending to Miranda as Maribella gets ready for her day. Erik is still asleep when Andre kisses “his girls” goodbye at 7:45. In fact, Andre has finished the dishes and is making another pot of coffee when his guest emerges, yawning and bleary-eyed in his striped pyjamas.

“Good morning! You sleep okay?”

“Mmmph. Fine. Weird dreams. I made a bunch of notes last night. Do I have time to eat before Bill gets here?”

“Sure, if you don’t mind a fried egg and toast.”

Erik nods, then heads back to shower while Andre makes breakfast. When he comes back, clean and shiny in his new black jeans and charcoal pullover. He hands Andre a few pages of yellow legal paper covered in neat, old-fashioned cursive.

Andre skims the papers as Erik eats. It’s mostly in the form of lists and questions, but the gist is that Erik wants peace, suitable to his advanced years, and plenty of physical activities and challenges, suitable to his tender years. No military school, but private is fine if it’s progressive. He’s very adamant that any adults around him be quiet people; no heavy drinking, no big crowds, no weird religion or politics, no food restrictions, nobody yelling at him or hitting him.

“Do you think for a second I’d let you near anyone who would strike you? If anyone even tries it I’m bringing down the hammer of god, legally and otherwise.”

“Sure, but kids get hit,” Erik shrugs. “The second page is more preferred, but not necessary, conditions.”

Andre nods and slips Erik’s notes in his own folder. He’s very irritated by what seems to him like a lack of faith, but his ward and client believes in deeds over words and Bill Fordyce is already at the door.

Sensing something in the air, the security guard ushers them both to the back seat of the company car. He tells him he’s closing the window to listen to his own radio station and that they can play whatever they want or talk. Just knock if they need him.

Andre finishes reading through Erik’s notes, growing more discontented as he goes. He cannot stay silent.

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be anticipating boredom, toil, neglect and abuse to an alarming degree.”

“What? No, I’m just making my wishes clear”

“Try to remember that I promised to look after you. You asked for the life of - and I believe this is a quote - a spoiled, rich, American kid, and that is what you will have, god dammit!”

Erik looks genuinely surprised at the outburst. “I trust you, Andre, but you can’t control the future. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that.” He thinks for a moment. “I think the problem is that you have an idea of how people live based on your experience, and I have mine. You want me to have the kind of family you had, but with more money. If your parents had been rich they would have lavished you with wonderful experiences and fine things.”

“Naturally. Any parent would.”

“Nope, you’re dead wrong. That’s my whole point. I’m not dismissing your plans, Andre, but I don’t see myself fitting into some Saturday Evening Post ideal family picture. It could end up being really bad. You need to be prepared for that.”

“You could try, couldn’t you? You have this great chance to start over. I’d hate to see you waste it.”

Erik looks at Fordyce, who appears entirely preoccupied with driving and listening to the news. He drops his voice anyway.

“When I was this age the first time I was already independent, by choice.” He gives Andre a steady look. “I had already killed a man and the adults around me were as useless as tits on a bull. I had to get the hell out and look after myself.”

That last bit of information rattles Andre a bit, but he maintains professional calm, giving himself time to analyze the situation and his ward time to settle.

“Do you mind answering a few questions?”

Erik sighs, but nods his head.

“Was it self defense?”

His client stares out the window, lost in memories, things he hasn’t thought of in decades. “Yes. They would have hanged me for it anyway, but yes.”

“Did you choose to fight?”

“No. It wasn’t a fight, not really. I just…reacted. That was the first. There were others, lots of others.”

That Erik knew. He also knows a lot of men in his father’s cohort who could say the same, but that was wartime. That doesn’t count.

“Okay, then. I will concede that you have, as my dad would say, seen some shit. You’ve done terrible things. You’re a bad person. Let’s take that as read.”

Erik shrugs.

“You’re a monster and a villain who doesn’t deserve a second chance. You should be in jail. Or maybe you should be sitting by the fire nursing your arthritis and falling asleep over financial reports. But you aren’t. You’re here. You have a second chance like nobody else in the world. What are you going to do with it?”

Erik is thoughtful for a long time. Finally, he shrugs. “I can’t argue with you, Andre. It’s not like I can get myself aged up in a hurry. You’re right. Here I am. And it’s already different.

“I wonder about that all the time. Is it just like being an old man in a young man’s body?”

“No. Not really. I can’t describe it. I feel antsy, but I know it’s because my body is young, full of hormones and energy, burning fuel fast. I feel like punching something right now, but I won’t because it would be a futile gesture and I’d only hurt my hand. The first time I was young I didn’t have this in-house mental supervisor. It’s not exactly the wisdom of age. In some ways it’s like flying, but not the first time flying. There’s a sense of danger, but also confidence of a sort. I have a future. I know I have a future. The last time that was very much in doubt. Of course, I didn’t plan to start my new life as a damned kid.”

“I wouldn’t mind having the energy of a teenager some days.”

“Oh, I am enjoying that part. And this is when I’m still recovering from the rejuvenation fiasco. Just wait until I’m completely healthy. And I’m hungry again.”

Andre smiles and knocks on the window. Bill Fordyce knows a bagel place an hour outside of Albany, so they pull in and have a coffee each while Erik wolfs down his second breakfast. Just to be safe Andre buys a few pieces of banana bread for the road.

***

The key to getting a reputation as a miracle worker is to anticipate the needs of the client and jump on opportunities to get ahead. This is the kind of work ethic that let Olrik to impersonate an American engineer and walk across an ocean floor back in his day. It was why his London lawyer set up legal and illegal contacts the moment Olrik headed to Japan back in 1965. Andre Torres was cast in the same mold, which is why the trip to Albany seems like a cakewalk. Like Delaney, Torres started on the project as soon as Olrik/Ivan left for Japan.

Unlike most birth certificates, this one names a father but no mother. That took some doing, but a series of letters and diary entries, and a highly unorthodox contract between Ivan Ostrovsky and a birth surrogate identified only as Dolores Y., convinces the New York State Department of Health to come across. The actual presence of the “baby” is the finishing touch, and on March 27, 1995 a very pleased Ivan Erik Ostrovsky walks out of the Albany office with a genuine legal document, a filed, authentic document that anyone can look up and see what a bona fide young citizen he is.

Erik had readily copied out and signed all the documents from Andre back in Japan, but he hadn’t expected their scam (maneuver, please, says Andre) to work so well or so quickly. Apparently it is not unheard of for American parents to neglect government formalities, especially among insular religious communities. Andre relates a number of stories about teens and young adults having to produce witnesses to their birth to get government identification against their parents’ wishes.

“In your case, at least there was nobody around to fight you. The hardest part was finding clean old paper and working typewriter ribbons.”

“Was that even necessary?”

“Probably not, but what if someone decides to investigate you some day? I want your papers to proof against even forensic analysis. I’ve managed to find a bunch of old birthday and note cards as well. You can fill them out at your leisure, just in case. We're going for verisimilitude in every detail.” Andre doesn’t know it, but he’s just greatly increased his client’s trust and is showing comforting signs of being the kind of ally Erik will need for decades to come.

“Nice work, Andre. I might run for president or something. No point in being careless.”

“You are legally entitled to run for president or any office you wish as long as you keep your nose clean. You will also be eligible for selective service registration and jury duty in due time.”

“Sure. And voting. I’ve never voted, not in any country.”

“Glad to see you’re starting to appreciate the wonders of normal life.”

Andre leads the boy to the Albany social security office, where they get a card for him in less than thirty minutes. Andre wants to get lunch quickly and beat the traffic, but Erik insists on stopping in a leather goods boutique and making Andre buy him a leather bound planner and a new wallet for his card and the $48 he had left in his pocket.

“We’ll have to add a learners’ permit to your collection when we get you settled, and a library card.”

“I know. You put those on your list already. I wonder how soon I can realistically get Redwing to spot me a car.”

The three of them have lunch at a decent burger place which must be close to a high school, because half the tables are packed with teens. Andre watches Erik watching the kids with some amusement. He can almost see the wheels turning as Erik takes in the fashion, the slang, the mannerisms, all while appearing entirely focussed on his food.

Later, in the car, Andre keeps the window open so he and Bill can tell Erik stories about their own school days. Fordyce was on the track team and would have made it to the Olympics if his father hadn’t died. As it was, track got him through college. Andre was a debate man, but he played soccer in a community league after school. Andre was also in Latin club, which earns him some gentle ribbing from Bill, who did outdoor ed. This is something Erik can hardly believe. Camping as part of school? That seems unreasonable.

The concept of electives is even more intriguing. Andre speaks favorably of his semester of home economics, although that was mostly great because of the teacher. Most of his electives were academic enrichment - law and western civilization and English literature.

“Still, doesn’t hurt to learn some practical skills,” Bill puts in. “I still use what I learned in ninth grade shop.”

When they get back to the house Bill declines to go inside despite being invited. He’d rather wait outside and enjoy the weather, meaning a smoke.

When they’re alone Andre cautions Erik that there is more to school than studies and clubs. The boy is going to have to look out for bullies and cliques. It’s part of life, but a bad social situation can make school unbearable.

“Andre, there is nothing you can tell me about palace intrigue. I’ve lived in actual palaces. And prisons, which are oddly similar.”

“But things are different now. For example, if some punk picks a fight with you, you could get in trouble for striking back.”

“Like a prison.”

“Point taken. But there will be shitty little schemers and gangs of mean girls who can ruin your life.”

“Like a palace.”

“Fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“You warned me. Tell me more about clubs. Are they really that important?”
Mollified, Andre explains the ins and outs of college admissions, and how clubs are viewed. He himself credits debate for helping him through law school, and his coaching experience looked good on his early resumes.

“So it helped you in a concrete way?”

“Well, yes, but more because it gave me an outlet for my aptitudes and my, er, argumentative nature. If you’re not interested, don’t bother. Find something you like and do your best. Whatever school you end up in will have a list of things to try out. As far as college admission goes, the important thing is to have extracurricular activities to write about, although even that won’t be an issue for you. With your name and money you’ll get into an elite school, and even if you don’t it won’t affect your future life.”

“And I may not go that route at all, I just want the option.”

Maribella is soon home with the baby and a roast chicken with sides from the deli. She informs Erik that she was on the debate team as well, but only for one semester. She preferred choir and art club, while her sister was big in musical theatre and drama. This hits Erik as hard as Bill’s outdoor ed.

“You’re telling me that high school students sing and put on plays.”

“And operettas.”

“And operettas. In school. With costumes and music and a stage.”

“And lights and an audience and everything. And sometimes they get school credit, and sometimes they just have a really good time and make friends. It’s sheer madness.”

“And if, say, Miranda wanted to do this sort of thing, you would allow it?”

Maribella makes a face at him. “Allow it? I’d be thrilled. We’d go to her plays and clap louder than anyone. Her auntie would drive up just to see her perform.”

“We’d let her play the same show tune a hundred times a day and practice in the kitchen,” Andre adds.

“We’d drive her to rehearsal and wait to pick up from after parties.”

Erik spends much of the evening looking through some old yearbooks Maribella pulls out of storage and making notes in his new journal. It’s quite late when Andre taps him on the shoulder.

“Stay up if you like, but you have a long day tomorrow. Lots of tests.”

Erik’s face falls. “Right. I’d almost forgotten.”

“It will be fine,” says Maribella. She pulls Erik in for a hug which he barely resists. “Andre will be with you the whole time and you can go get some ice cream afterwards, buy yourself a treat.”

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll be brave,” he answers, but Andre can see the strain.

Chapter Text

Andre had scheduled Erik’s first week back in New York with an eye to getting things done.That was what he and Ostrovsky had discussed last year before the old man left for Japan: hit the ground running, get back to work. Andre had assumed that nothing had changed, until he saw Erik’s face Tuesday morning. The boy is already dressed and sitting at the kitchen table with the paper and it’s not even six o’clock. Coffee is on but he’s drinking water.

“Oh, right, fasting blood work. We’ll get it done quickly,” Andre assures him.

“Who’s our minder today?” He’s studiously casual but there are dark circles under his eyes.

“Mr. Ito. If you like, I can call him and get this over with sooner so you don’t have to wait half the morning for breakfast.” Without waiting for an answer Andre goes to the other room and makes the call. He explains to Maribella that they’ll be leaving earlier than expected, so she comes out in her robe to wish Erik luck.

“Keep your chin up. I’ll teach you a new recipe tonight. Something really good.”

It occurs to Andre that he should probably improvise a series of rewards to get Erik through the day, rather like how they keep a little bag of goldfish crackers and string cheese to get Miranda through a slog. Hell, plenty of adult clients need a break every half hour during depositions, and that’s a picnic compared to what Erik is facing.

Andre pours the coffee into a thermos and decides to skip breakfast in solidarity. Ito arrives before Maribella gets out of the shower, so he writes a few lines on a sticky note for her. Clapping the boy on the back, Ito promises to get them to the clinic quickly, and they’re off.

The Circle Park Center is an unobtrusive brown brick cube brightened by lush landscaping and soothing water features. The roster of clients who use this elite pediatric clinic appreciate the discretion and the sense of luxury. Andre investigated the clinic as soon as he fully grasped Erik’s situation, and knows it to be excellent, but it took some persuasion to get the boy to agree to it. Erik finds the notion that a young body needs a special kind of doctor ridiculous. Truthfully, he’d like to avoid medical care entirely, but the Sato group made that impossible.

The clinic staff treat Erik with great dignity, to Andre’s relief. He offers to accompany Erik into the lab, but the boy insists that he’s fine. He comes out in ten minutes escorted by a nurse. ‘

“No problem, just a little dizzy from filling all those vials,” she assures him.

Mr. Ito suggests that they get some food into him now, but Erik wants to get his x-rays and dental over with first, so they humor him. They only have thirty minutes until the dental appointment anyway, so in the clinic they stay. Erik’s teeth are better than fine as it happens. As an old man he had a bridge and two crowns, but they were from teeth broken in accidents and fights. His new set is nearly pristine; the x-rays show nothing untoward except the start of wisdom teeth that may need to be taken out eventually. The hygienist gives him a few scrapes and a quick polish, a lecture on proper hygiene, and a gift bag full of toothbrushes, floss, colorful pencils and stickers.

Since string cheese won’t go far with a cranky client, Erik suggests that they all get a late breakfast or early lunch and get the banking part taken care of. The thought of getting his hands on his own money is enticing. Andre has already opened a Bank of America account for Erik, so their visit is a quick errand to pick up his account information, debit and credit cards and more cash. As galling as it is for someone used to having absolute control over his considerable assets, Erik will have to confine himself to $1000 a month spending money unless he makes prior arrangements with his guardian. This is for the appearance’s sake, as Erik has access to considerable sums through his trust. If he wanted a trip to Paris, for example, Andre would arrange it, but Erik knows he can’t display any suspicious power, especially with his enemies abroad still watching. Of course, all his ordinary expenses, from tuition to Christmas vacation will be covered by his trust.

“The credit limit is $300, so it won’t be terribly useful for you, but you should have it for emergencies. The statements will go to me, of course.”

“So you’re saying I should find another way to pay for cocaine and pornography,” Erik replies. Ito covers his snort with a dignified cough.

“I’m saying that you have a massive allowance and should enjoy it. Just know that I know.”

Erik raises an eyebrow and mutters something disdainful about money not being for enjoyment that Andre pretends not to hear.

Ito leads them to a dim sum place nearby that opens at 11, and soon they’re up to their elbows in small dishes. Ito mischievously orders a plate of chicken feet and is gratified when Erik matches him, toe to toe.

Erik insists on paying, clearly in a better mood. He only has two more appointments, but they’re by far the most difficult. As far as the clinic is concerned, Erik Ostrovsky suffered a head injury in January followed by a bout of mononucleosis, which is the closest they can get to describing the weirdness of the Sato debacle. This means that Erik will have a full physical and neurological exam and an MRI. Andre would like to stay with him through it all, but that isn’t possible. Instead he assures Erik that he will stick close by.

“You can back out any time. Remember that.”

“I wish I had a shot of gin.”

Despite its resemblance to a high-tech coffin, the MRI isn’t as horrible as he’d expected. The technician bundles him in blankets to keep him warm and plays horribly tinny music as a distraction. Erik breathes through the anxiety of being tightly confined and counts eight godawful songs, and then it’s all over and he’s being congratulated on his fortitude.

The physical takes much longer. Dr. Eton makes a point of shaking Erik’s hand and explaining everything that happens, which helps. He asks dozens of questions as he listens to Erik’s heart and lungs and takes his pulse. He tests Erik’s reflexes, and asks him to complete basic tasks for what seems like an hour. Walk forward, walk backwards, turn one foot in, then the other. Finally, a nurse comes in with a tray of syringes and Erik gets a lifetime of vaccinations in one go. It’s done.

Eton has Andre come into the exam room when Erik is dressed and ready to go. He reports that some of the bloodwork results are in already, but it will be at least a week before he has the MRI results. In the meantime, he wants Erik to take vitamin D supplements and get more exercise. No high-impact sports until he gets the all-clear, but otherwise the kid is healthy and should live a normal kid life, the sooner the better. At 5’ 6” and 125 pounds Erik is on the low end of the healthy weight range, and his muscle tone could be better. Eton tells Andre not to worry; the boy has been through a rough time but teenagers are amazingly resilient. He gives them a vial of three age-appropriate pain meds for the vaccine reaction and, to Andre’s great amusement, more pencils and stickers.

Erik doesn’t say much until they’re outside the clinic, where he finally relaxes. “Well, Andre, as delightful as it is to have a lifetime supply of fancy pencils, I never want to go through another day like this.”

“I think I can promise you that. Hey, let’s go check out the bookstore for a treat. Do you mind, Mr. Ito?”

Ito does not. In fact, he helps Erik select a few baby books for Miranda and finds the Mandela autobiography for Maribella. Andre allows the gifts, knowing that for his myriad faults, Ostrovsky was a gentleman - more or less - with a sense of what is due one’s hosts. The idea is to add positive character traits, not wipe out the ones he has. To his surprise, Erik also buys a stack of graphic novels, all part of a series.

“For yourself?

“Sure. They’re different and I like the art. Like you said, time to try new things.”

When they get back to the house Erik thanks Ito like they’re old friends, getting a few chuckles out of the bodyguard. Keep building those bridges, kiddo, Andre thinks.

There’s a thick envelope with Erik’s name on it on the doorstep, but Erik stashes it in the guest room unopened. He’ll get to it later, he says. As it is, Maribella gets home almost before Erik can finish writing an inscription in the book. She loves it, of course, and Miranda claps her hands when she sees what Erik has brought her. As promised, Maribella, teaches Erik to make “something good” namely pork chops stuffed with ham and cheese, Uruguayan style. Andre listens as Erik recounts his day, turning the ordeal into a funny story. He’s found a way to use charm that isn’t too out of place in a fifteen-year-old, Andre thinks. Is he acting or unbending? He supposes it's a good thing that Erik is mastering the part.

After dinner Erik helps with the dishes but says he wants to stay in his room. His arms hurt and he’s worn out from the day. As Miracella is getting Mirada ready for bed, Andre sees light under Erik’s door and knocks. The boy opens the door and Andre is surprised to see that he’s already in pyjamas. He has a stack of papers spread out on the bed and one of his new books is open.

“Everything okay?”

“Oh, nothing is wrong, just odd. Do you have a minute?”

“Sure,” Andre answers. The guest room is very small and the lone chair is mere inches from the bed, but Erik gestures towards it like a lord welcoming guests to his table. Andre makes himself comfortable and takes the paper offered. It’s a handwritten letter from a Michael Malone Sharkey, expressing grief and condolences at the death of Erik’s father.

“He seems really upset.”

“I’ll have to write back and thank him. I kind of wish I could tell him the truth but that would be a terrible idea.”

“You were close?”

“He worked for me, and we stayed in touch. I would call him a friend, I suppose. He and his wife visited me last year, just before Christmas and it was perfectly pleasant. I just realized that his children are all older than I am now.”

“Writing back is a good idea. They’ll appreciate it.”

“There are other condolence cards - business associates, employees. I’ll have to answer them all. I don’t suppose you have black-bordered paper in the house?”

“Good lord, no.”

“No matter. I’ll get it from the apartment tomorrow. Or Smythson will have it.”

“You can spend a pleasant evening writing about your own death. That sounds fun. Is there anything else?”

“More reports. Delaney is fine, living in a mansion in Surrey, surrounded by ill-gotten wealth and adoring family. Blake and Mortimer are still in play. Ivan’s death hasn’t stopped them from investigating Redwing. Good luck with that, you slow-brained fuckers. Oh, and I’m a great-grandfather.”

“Oooooookay.”

Erik tosses another file Andre’s way. It’s a typewritten report about two obscure Belgian citizens. One is the owner of a successful fencing academy, which he runs with his son. The son himself became a father to a healthy baby girl in November.

“So the fencing instructor is your son?”

“Biologically. It’s a story for another time. He has no idea and neither does his half sister.”

“Right, the translator.”

“Apparently a talent for languages is heritable. She’s very much in-demand at the United Nations, I understand.”

“I see that. Jerome has, let’s see, four grown children! Simone has two. You’ll likely become a great-grandfather many times over.”

“I suppose I will. I keep tabs on them out of curiosity, just to see how the genetics play out. There’s no real connection, but it is interesting.”

Andre power-reads the report - a lawyerly skill - and notes that both “children” will be 54 years old in September and that their birthdays are twelve days apart. More importantly, neither they nor any other family members mentioned in the report have any legal or financial difficulties. They all seem quite successful, at least on paper: prosperous, well-educated, talented. He puts the report back in the folder and hands it back.

“Do you need me to take an action on any of this?”

Erik thinks for a moment. “Not yet, just keep the reports coming regularly. They’ll have to come to you. I really don’t want my pet sharks at Redwing getting curious”

Andre nods. “You should get some rest. Today has been a bit of a meat grinder, and tomorrow we visit those sharks.”

“Right. I think I’ll take one of those pain pills. I’m more sore now than I was this afternoon.”

Andre gets a glass of water and helps Erik put the papers away. He closes the door and tiptoes to the nursery. Miranda is asleep, tiny thumb in her mouth, long back lashes soft on her cheeks. Andre stroke’s his baby girl’s curls and thinks about her future, and the future of the young man in the other room. Erik could live to see six generations of descendants, but for all his life experience he is closer to Miranda’s age than Andre’s. Does age even apply in this situation? It’s a wild thought, hard to wrap one’s mind around. What a strange day. Andre takes comfort in the family file; it doesn’t appear that his client is a progenitor of monsters, whatever he once was and whatever he will become.

Chapter Text

Wednesday has been set aside for what Andre is calling The Return of the King, a reference that Erik actually understands, for once. He had expected to find the king in question in the kitchen first thing, dressed and eager to head out, but there’s no sign of the boy except for muffled footsteps and thumps from the guest room.

Maribella has already made coffee and is feeding Miranda oatmeal which the baby alternately lunges at and rejects.

“Should I make us some eggs?” He kisses her face and neck, taking advantage of the privacy.

“Just some cereal for me, babe. I have a lunch meeting and the catering is supposed to be good for a change. I didn’t realize our guest was leaving today.”

“You talked to him already?”

“Just for a minute. He’s stripping the bed and packing.”

Andre hadn’t known for sure that Erik was leaving today either. He will have to discuss that with his ward. “Erik might be a little optimistic on this one, but it would be nice to get back to normal.”

“Oh, well. He’s nott much trouble, and it was an interesting preview of having a teenager in the house.”

“Miranda won’t be like that.”

“No, she will not. Hey, did Marcus and Maddy get back to you?”

“Yes. They’re on the list now, but the final decision has to be Erik’s. I know he doesn’t seem all that difficult, but he’s a very different kid when crossed.”

The kid in question emerges from the guest room. Andre had expected him to dress up a little, but Erik is wearing a grey tee and flannel shirt over jeans, and his hair is hanging over his eyes. He tosses his duffel in the hall.

Maribella teases him about deserting the family, which he takes in good enough humor. She warns him that wherever he ends up will be disappointing after their hospitality.

“That’s why I want to try living on my own, so I won’t be disappointed.”

“Like Bruce Wayne? With an Alfred for company.”

“I don’t know who those people are.”

“Never mind. What’s up with your big business meeting today?”

Erik plays it close to the vest. “The people who run my dad’s company have been bugging Andre to prove that I exist, so we’ll do that.”

“When Mr. Ostrovsky passed, Assiz Hassan became CEO according to the succession plan,” Andre explains. “Doris Huttering has gone from sales and marketing to operations. Those are the only ones we’ll have to worry about today.”

“But there are others?”

Andre glances at Erik, who is maintaining a poker face. “Um, Malcolm Browning heads up the security division, but he’s out of the country right now, in the Middle East somewhere, and William Hunter-Adams is in charge of technology, but he’s upstate.”

“There’s a development lab in Syracuse,” Erik adds. “I think it’s new. I’d like to see that some day, but for now I care more about this apartment my dad left me.”

“You’ve never seen it?”

“I barely saw my father. He visited me a few times a year, but that was about it.”

“Good god.”

The boy shrugs. “It’s not a big deal. He made sure I was taken care of.”

“Still, he was your father.”

“There are lots of different kinds of fathers. He paid some lady I’ll never meet a bunch of money to have me when he was already super old.. It was all about continuing the legacy for him, not family like you mean it. I know I should miss him, but I really don’t. It really doesn’t matter, except now this company wants to talk to me.”

Maribella makes a wry face at Andre and takes the baby into the nursery to change her. Erik finishes his coffee in silence and Andre is struck by the thought that the little speech about his “father” might be more truthful than not. Somewhere in Europe, a long time ago, there might have been an old man who had a son for the sake of a name, and in a way old Ivan did arrange for Erik to be taken care of, at least if Andre has anything to say about it.

When Maribella leaves for work with the baby she pulls young Erik in for a hug. The boy is a bit stiff, but he returns it well enough.

“Don’t be a stranger, okay?”

“I won’t. And I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me. It’s been great.”

She gives him another squeeze and picks up the baby carrier. Erik opens the door for her and even waves from the porch. Andre can’t help but wonder if he’s completely playing a role or if there’s something real going on.

***

Four is a modest number of chief executives, and in all fairness, Redwing is a modest company. Yes, Ivan Ostrovky was a very rich man with a very successful business, but he always kept it lean, focusing on profits rather than expansion. Redwing is private, with no board of directors and no shareholders. The Redwing Building is a bit of a local landmark, but that’s for its striking midcentury style. Four of the six stories are in use by the company. The ground floor houses a stylish and overpriced cafe, a dry cleaner, a travel and luggage shop, a barber, and a realty office. There is a private elevator that goes to the sixth floor, where Ivan Ostrovsky lived for the last fifteen years of his life, having moved in as soon as Redwing bought the building.

Fordyce picks them up today. He notices the duffle and gives Andre a questioning look.

“Erik wants to see the apartment and if it suits, I’ve agreed to let him try it out for a night or two. Would you mind calling ahead and telling Mr. Shaw?”

Fordyce shrugs and rolls up the window. He has a knack for sensing tension.

“Nice cover,” Erik mutters.

“You might have warned me.”

“I only decided this morning. No, I’m not upset with you and Mrs. - with Maribella. I just woke up and noticed how many things I was accumulating and decided that it was time for me to move on. It’s not personal.”

“I understand, but if this is going to work you’re going to have to at least pretend to view me in loco parentis, okay?”

“Fine. I’ll try to keep the surprises to a minimum.”

“And remember to act like you don’t know where you’re going when we get to Redwing.”

“Andre, give me some credit.”

 

When they approach the Financial District, Fordyce turns down one of less hectic streets and through a security gate to an underground garage. He parks in the spot reserved for Ivan Ostrovsky and leads them to the fifth floor. He doesn’t insist on following them into the board room, but there’s no need to as there are security guards everywhere, some in uniform, some trying to be inconspicuous and failing.

Andre knows quite a bit about the Redwing executives from background files and office talk, but he wasn’t prepared for them to look like Bond villains. Assiz Hassan is well over six feet tall and whip thin, with a shaved head, neat beard and mustache, and a silver hoop in one ear. He wears a black suit with a silver tie and pocket square. Doris Huttering is only average height, but she makes up for it with a mane of red hair with a white streak down the middle. She has a very wide, toothy smile and as Andre shakes her hand he notes that one eye is grey, the other green. She’s wearing a simple, high-necked navy dress with a large gold brooch shaped like an antique hand grenade.

The best way to describe their reception is intense. Hassan and Huttering treat them with respect, but they have an obvious agenda. Huttering, in particular, is very concerned about school and drops the name Horace Mann several times. She’s an alumnus, as it happens, and two of her children go there now. Hassan politely but persistently grills Andre about security, finances, and character development. He hints that perhaps the legal arrangements for Erik could be reconsidered with Redwing taking more of a role. He’s a father himself, he tells Andre, and Erik is nearly grown. He will have a great deal of responsibility in ten short years and surely the company should be involved.

The meeting seems to go on forever. Andre ends up agreeing to look over a long list of recommendations the executives have for the young heir and they concede that ultimately Andre will make the call and that Erik is old enough to make decisions about his own life. Redwing will forward Andre reports and provide Erik with the training he needs to understand the company on request. Andre will ensure that Redwing doesn’t have to call in social workers.

“It does look like Mr. Ostrovsky tied things up very neatly,” Huttering muses. “He even went to the trouble to have himself certified sound of mind before making his final testament. Perhaps he knew that such an unorthodox arrangement would invite challenge,” she gives Erik a big smile. “You will let us know if we can help you in any way, won’t you? After all, we’ll all be working together for a long time.”

“Sure,” Erik answers. “Or I’ll just ask Uncle Andre and he’ll call you. Dad always said to rely on Uncle Andre.”

He’s laying it on a bit thick, but it does the trick.They’re released, loaded down with paper, and turned over to a slim, fair man in his thirties who introduces himself as Michael Shaw, the late Mr. Ostrovsky’s assistant. He insists on taking Erik’s duffle bag and up they go to the sixth floor.

It isn’t until Michael opens the doors to Ivan’s flat that Andre realizes he was expecting something fusty and old-fashioned, red velvet drapes and mahogany furniture, certainly not… this.

“It’s almost as Mr. Ostrovsky left it,” Shaw says. “Of course when we realized he… wasn’t coming back, we removed some of the personal items of no value, but I am cataloguing everything else. I wasn’t sure what you wanted to do.”

Shaw watches them taking in the apartment. Ostrovsky began living here 15 years ago, shortly after Redwing bought the building. At first it was just a convenience, but gradually it was transformed into a luxurious space, with a sauna, a private theatre, and a patio garden designed to make the occupant forget all about the surrounding skyscrapers. The walls are white and softly lit to set off Ostrovsky’s large and eclectic art collection. Much of the work appears to be Japanese, at least to Andre’s untrained eye, but there are pieces from several cultures, including what looks to Andre like a Frida Kahlo original. The furniture is a mix of Art Deco and mid-century modern pieces, and there isn’t a lot of it. The overall feeling is clean and open but not minimalist. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s a hothouse. Anyone walking through it the first time would guess it was the home of an old bachelor, and an exacting, eccentric one at that.

“What will you do with the place if I don’t end up living here?”

Shaw’s face falls a little. “My thought was we’d pack up all of Mr. Ostrovsky’s - your father’s - things until you want them. We’d either leave it empty or rent it to one of the executives, or to another party, as you think best.”

Erik wanders around the rooms, looking at the paintings and sculpture, then heads out to the patio garden closely followed by Fordyce. Shaw hangs back a bit with Andre.

“It’s astonishing.”

“Hmm? What is?”

“The resemblance to Mr. Ostrovsky. It’s as if he’d had himself copied.”

“You think so? I suppose, around the eyes and nose at least.”

Shaw shakes his head. “I was told about the son and heir but nobody mentioned that he was just a boy. I was expecting a man of thirty or more. An actual child. I had no idea.

Erik has come back in time to overheard the last few words. “My father never mentioned me to you?”

“Not a word,” Shaw returns, sadly. “If I had known I would have made better preparations.”

“He didn’t want anyone to know. He said there’d be too many questions and dangers, whatever that means. He told me about you, though.”

“He did?”

“Oh, sure.” Erik dropped his voice to mimic an old man growl. “If you need anything, talk to Shaw! Shaw is reliable. Shaw will know what to do. He’s the keeper of the keys.”

“You sound just like him!”

“Yeah? I guess I take after him. Hey, do we have anything to eat? We ended up talking with Mr. Hassan and Ms. Huttering forever and I’m starving.”

Shaw is more than happy to help Ivan’s boy in any way. He goes off to order food and touch base with the security team, leaving them alone in the sitting room.

“How are you doing?” Andre asks when he’s sure they won’t be overheard.

“Fine. Really hungry. Damn Doris and Assiz. I thought they’d never stop with the grilling. Still, I think it went well.”

“Went well? Those people are maniacs!”

Erik smiles. “Oh, Andre, those are the nice ones.”

“Good lord. I’d bet money they’ve probably already hired private detectives to stalk my ass. Talk about pushy!”

“Oh, I expected that, and yes, the guards who work for Redwing will be reporting everything back to Redwing. I was pleased that they didn’t try to suck up to me or treat me like an adult.”

“Really?”

“Look at me! If they’d treated me like an adult it would mean they’re full of shit, right? They treated me like a kid who needs protection. They treated me like they were worried I’d screw everything up for them. They didn’t even pretend to ask my advice or take me seriously as a businessperson. All that stuff about my education and upbringing was them wanting me to become worthy of Redwing.”

So that’s why he made no effort to look adult, thinks Andre. It’s protective coloration. “You make a good case, but they are absolutely crazy people. You’ll concede that at least.”

“Definitely. You have to be a bit off-centre in this business. Browning goes around like he’s the second coming of Patton, and the new development guy might be a robot. I’m not saying I enjoyed it, but they were right to treat me like a snot-nosed brat. I wouldn’t trust a team that did anything else.”

“They’re going to have to back off at some point or your life won’t be worth living. Nice touch on the ‘Uncle Andre’ by the way.”

“That was an improvisation, but I might keep using it around people if that works for you.”

“Sure. And Auntie Maribella, if you can manage that. I don’t blame you for wanting to come back here after our tiny guest room now that I’ve seen it. You’ll be safe, and at least Michael seems very nice.”

“Oh, he’s a pussycat, a natural caretaker. Was devoted to me the last time around. I’ll have to make sure he’s looked after. Mrs. Katz too. I’m a little surprised she took off so quickly, but I suppose the team has their own chefs.”

“Does he have children?”

“Michael? No. Michael shares a flat with another gentleman and has for eight years. I pretend I don’t know and he pretends not to know that I know. He has nieces and nephews, though. He’s always talking about them.”

Speaking of Shaw, he pops in to tell them that food has arrived. Andre and Erik help put out plates and dish out their lunches, over Shaw’s protests. Erik insists that Michael eat with them and tell them all about the security arrangements. Michael explains that there are actually three layers of security: one for the building as a whole and all the tenants, one for the Redwing offices, and a third specifically for Erik as long as he’s in the penthouse. Only one guard at a time in the flat, with two day shifts and one long overnight shift where the guard will stay in the second biggest bedroom.

“Second biggest? Of how many?” Andre asks.

“Only three. Mr. Ostovsky wasn’t big on company, although he had some lovely people over last year,” Michael sighs. “Oh, there’s someone at the door. Probably Cunningham for the second shift. Michael goes off to greet the guard and get back to his own work.

When they’re alone, Andre lifts his briefcase to the table and opens it theatrically.

“Ah, the dossiers!”

“I told you they’d be ready. After you gave me your notes I did a bit of adjusting, but you have six solid options and if you can’t make up your mind on one, we’ll keep looking.”

“All right. I promise to give some careful thought to it.”

“That’s all I want. So you hang out here with Michael and all the muscle and I’ll call you tomorrow.”

“Yes, yes. Give my best to Maribella. I probably should have thanked her again.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Andre glances around the apartment and back to his client. “Have fun!”

***

That evening Andre and Maribella break out the grill for burgers and work in the garden after dinner. Once the baby is in bed they pull the curtains and dance in their living room. Erik and Mr. Cunningham have a very quiet dinner and watch the news. When Mr. Braun arrives at eight he examines the apartment for vulnerabilities, and except for checking to make sure Erik doesn’t watch or read anything inappropriate for a teen, leaves the boy alone. Erik retreated to the master with Andre’s stack of dossiers. He sits up in a bed that no longer feels like his own and reads until Braun knocks on the door at 10:45.

“Lights out in fifteen, sir.”

Erik contemplates several cutting responses, then sighs. “Will do, Mr. Braun.” He silently curses the Sato lab for the thousandth time, stacks the files on the bedside table and tries to imagine the years ahead

Chapter Text

Andre finds himself whistling on the way to work, to the disdain of his fellow subway users. As interesting as the last few days have been, it’s a relief to get back to normal work again, not to mention quality time with Maribella. His colleagues at Sullivan and Cromwell give him a bit of ribbing over his absence, but there’s a bit of envy there too. A few are curious enough to ask directly about “the Ostrovsky kid” to which Andre repeats a variation on a theme: nice enough, quiet, out of his element, nothing unusual.

No amount of deflection will repel the Redwing folks or their friends across the pond, however, so as soon as he has a moment to spare, Andre goes through all his Ostrovsky notes with a fine sieve, setting aside anything pertaining to his meetings with Ivan before the Japan trip and the creation of Erik’s documents. There is a handful of people in the world who know about the Sato rejuvenation process and he has no intention of leaving any clues for them. He ends up with a dozen pages of notes that need to be destroyed or recopied with omissions. When this is done he shreds the unwanted notes and puts the tatters in his briefcase for later disposal. He makes a copy of all the notes in the Erik file, stores the original documents in his safe, and refiles the revised notes. He doesn’t expect Redwing to infiltrate his office, exactly, but after what he’s witnessed of them, he wouldn’t be shocked if they did.

If Erik had asked his advice, Andre would have recommended a more gradual transition to the penthouse apartment, perhaps some warning and more preparation, but since Erik hasn’t asked, Andre decides to let his ward cool his heels for a while. He will nibble away at his tiny part of a complicated merger between today’s meetings, and refrain from calling the boy until at least 3. Two at the earliest.

For his part, Erik has a decent enough night and wakes up in a mischievous mood. After a long, luxurious shower he carefully chooses the sloppiest items in his small wardrobe and combs his hair so it nearly falls over his eyes. He double-checks the trap he’s laid in the bureau beside his meager store of socks and underwear, and with great care fixes his bed to look as sloppily made as possible. Looking at it irritates him and will surely irritate his minders. He grabs his wallet and puts on black high-top sneakers - his only other choice in footwear for now - and silently pads past the sitting room where Braun is conferring with yet another guard, a woman this time.

He reaches the door and calls back at them. “I’m going to grab some breakfast. Be right back!” He’s in the stairwell in a blink and races down the six flights to the ground floor cafe where he gets in line, right behind the woman he’d seen with Braun. Damn. He’ll have to work on his time.

“So, you buying?” she asks. He puts her age at late 20s somewhere and she seems more amused than annoyed.

“Sure. I hear Redwing pay is lousy.”

“It’s not bad. Maybe not enough to chase a teenaged boy around all day, but not bad.” She introduces herself as Kate Liu and shakes his hand with a very firm grip. Liu radios Braun to tell him all is well and orders an egg white sandwich with tea. Erik orders his own sandwich and a fruit smoothie and pays for them both.

The cafe is only about half full and they get a good table with a view of the passing crowd.

“Look, I get that you’re too old for a babysitter,” Liu says in the confidential voice grownups use when they’ve decided to credit a kid with maturity - or pretend to. “I don’t want to cramp your style too much but my job is security and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you safe, including grounding your ass if I have to.”
“I’m pretty sure you can’t do that.”

“Want to try me?” She’s not a big woman, but there is no doubt in Erik’s mind that she could take him down in under a minute, so he smiles and digs into his meal. Confrontation isn’t part of his plan just yet anyway.

They eat and make small talk about the weather and things to do in New York. Liu explains that she will be with him until 1, so if he wants to spend the afternoon out they’ll have to alert the second shift to meet them. Other than that, they can be spontaneous, a little, up to a point, with sufficient precautions.”

“Of course, you’ll soon be in school and that will make everything much easier.”

Erik shrugs in the loose-bodied way that adults find exasperating. “I already passed my ninth grade exams. No point in killing myself about it.” Of course Liu wants to know exactly where he passed those exams, but he stonewalls. “I’m not supposed to tell.” That’s the line he and Andre agreed on months ago: Ivan wanted his kid raised for reasons of his own and that is that. She gets nothing more from him except his plan to explore Central Park (“not alone, you won’t”) then head to MoMA as soon as it opens.

Liu later reports that the shift passes easily despite the rocky start: target likes to walk and seems genuinely interested in art, but doesn’t talk much. Ito meets them at the MoMA cafe on the second floor and visits a few exhibits before driving the boy home. He later reports that Erik seemed to particularly enjoy the German Expressionist and Jacob Lawrence exhibits, called Andre Torres from the museum at 3 p.m., and wanted to go home for dinner.

The call in question lasts all of two minutes, just long enough to arrange a meeting in Andre’s office Friday morning. “Just checking in!” Erik assures Mr. Ito from the wall of pay phones. Ito finds the boy’s company pleasant enough, although the kid is evasive whenever he asks even the most basic personal question. Still, he’s polite enough and even grateful when Ito offers to make dinner for them to share. Ito is teaching the kid to play go when Braun shows up for the night shift.

Braun’s report is pretty thin. The boy hardly talks at all and attempts to forge a personal connection are met with distant politeness. The kid claims to be tired and preoccupied. They watch the news and the boy turns in early to read in his room.

Once in that room, away from anyone who will make a report, Erik checks his trap. Sprung! Satisfied, Erik gets ready for bed and retrieves Andre’s dossiers from where he hid them this morning, not between the mattresses like an amateur but within the layers of the bedclothes, camouflaged by sloppiness. He reads, considers, and makes notes until Braun calls for lights out, tucking the precious papers safely away before he sleeps.

***
Andre Torres graduated near the top of his class at Harvard and bills $500 an hour for his services. This sounds very impressive and is an undeniable accomplishment, but he is one of nearly 800 lawyers in the New York branch alone and they all have weighty credentials. His office is the size of a walk-in closet in a midwestern home, and like a closet, has no windows. Andre considers himself very, very lucky to be here and even more lucky that Ivan Ostrovsky noticed him during a routine business conference a year ago. Last year he had joked with Maribella that old Ostrovsky would be his meal ticket. Now young Ostrovsky is his care and concern and ten years away from being any kind of meal ticket, at least directly.

The care and concern shows up at his shoebox office at 9:58 accompanied by a ginger-haired young giant with a glum face. Andre very firmly informs the giant Mr. Braun that he must wait outside while he confers with his ward, but is welcome to have a coffee and read a magazine while he waits. He shuts the door tightly and gestures for Erik to sit down in one of the two client chairs.

“Before we start, I assume we can speak absolutely freely?”

“I had the office swept, as it happens. I also reviewed the files to ensure that even the most careful reader would find nothing untoward.”

Erik relaxes. “Good. Last night I had proof that the security team is actively spying on me.”

“Good lord.”

“I know! Can you imagine reading all the cards and letters a poor orphan lad has from his dead father?”

“Oh, I see.”

“I made use of all the old stationery and cards to create a little history for myself. One of them - probably Braun as I set him up for it - went through it and no doubt took pictures of every page. I wonder if he turned them over to Assiz or Doris.”

“How do you know he went through the papers?”

“I sealed them up with one of the stickers I got from the doctor; the envelope was resealed with a different one. A twist on an old trick.”

“And what revelations have you passed on to Redwing?”

“Fatherly advice about not letting them push me around, lots of exhortations to succeed and trust nobody, some history that will lead them nowhere. I had a little fun with it.”

“I bet you did. That’s not why you wanted to meet though, was it?”

Erik pulls a thick folder out of his backpack. “I’ve been going over the options you’ve presented and I think I’ve got it down to two. Obviously, I can’t stay where I am.”

“I really thought you’d make a go of it.”

“So did I, for a minute,” he makes a wry face. “Without privacy and the need to be close to work, the apartment is a terrarium. I won’t be back full time until I’m of age.”

“It will keep. What are your thoughts?”

“I won’t be raised by Redwing, so that’s out. The Connecticut family is too rural. The Ogdensburg family is a bit old. The Oregon option is very tempting, but I think I need to stick close to the business. That leaves the Blums or the Wattells.”

“You’d have a lot of fun with the Blums. They’re good friends of my boss and from what I’ve heard they’re really nice. Rich as hell, gorgeous Manhattan apartment, lots of cultural outings. Seasons tickets to the opera and ballet. You’d go to Knicks games with Bob and Aaron.”

“Aaron’s the son.”

“A year older than you. You’d go to Dalton together.”

“So why do they want to take in some random orphan?”

“They take in kids all the time, usually one or two foreign exchange students a year. Their name was the first that came to mind when I asked my boss for suggestions. They’re just super gregarious people who like to show others a good time. Oh, and they travel a lot. You’d get to spend holidays in Hawaii or Curacao.”

“What about the Wattells?”

“A quieter lifestyle. They’re not as rich as the Blums by a long shot, but they’ve hosted exchange students. A niece of Maddy’s lived with them for a year when her folks were going through some problems.”

“Buffalo, though.”

“A small city with plenty to do. It’s not New York, but nothing is. It’s close enough that you can visit the city easily.”

“I’m leaning towards the Blums. Not even Doris could object to them. The reason I’m still considering the Wattells is that you recommended them the most highly and their report is the least detailed. Why is that?”

Andre explains that the Wattells are friends of Maribella’s through her nonprofit, which they’ve supported for years. Marcus Wattell is an architect of some repute and Maddy is an author with eight children’s books and three adult novels to her credit. They’re solidly upper middle class with a nice house near Hoyt Lake. Their two children are in university, doing very well. Erik would follow them at the Silver Birch Academy.

“There’s something you’re holding back.”

Andre hesitates for a moment. He wasn’t consciously holding back, but now that Erik brings it up…

“I guess I restrained myself on the report because I’m so strongly in favor of them and didn’t want to exercise undue influence. I’ve met them several times and Maribella knows them well. They just strike me as a good fit for you. The Blums are great parents, lovely people, but I think you’d be overwhelmed. The Wattells are a little more down to earth and they’ve dealt with a lot of challenges. They’re creative and interesting, but solid. They’ve been a rock to their extended family. They’re the kind of folks who just calmly step in and take over when something goes south. Both the Wattell kids suffered some pretty serious bullying. Michael was sickly and Sarah is very pretty, and that can bring problems, especially for mixed kids. ”

“Right.”

“Marcus and Maddy dealt with it all beautifully and their kids are doing really well now. Michael is in grad school, Sarah is in undergrad. You’ll get to meet them but they won’t be home all the time. I just think it would suit. They’d be more concerned about protecting you than managing you.”

 

“I see your point, but right now I’m trying to avoid overprotection.”

“Look, you can’t go wrong with either the Blums or the Wattells. The Blums will give you a grand time. The Wattells will give you anonymity and space.”

Erik thinks for a moment. “Can you arrange a meeting with the Wattells? I’d like to at least see what I’d be getting into.”

“Absolutely. I’ll call you this afternoon, unless you want to stick around.”

“No, I’ll go back to the apartment. Braun drew the double shift short straw so I’ll give him a break. Oh, and I want you to take the dossiers back.”

“Redwing will have to be informed eventually.”

“When I’m good and ready and not a moment before.”

***

Every Friday afternoon at three Assiz Hassan and Doris Huttering have an informal catered meeting, just the two of them. When it’s Assiz’s turn he orders champagne, one of his many areas of expertise. Doris favors cream tea served in her own china, one of the many feminine touches she affects to disarm people. This week it is Doris’s turn and she makes a point of pouring the tea herself, pointing out particularly appetizing treats, and making small talk as if she had nothing pressing on her mind at all.

Assiz knows this means she has something she wants to spring on him. Besides, she’s wearing her gold and diamond bullet brooch which signals triumph, so he plays along in good humor. He talks about Malcolm’s trip overseas, their upcoming Business Week interview, a quality control problem in Syracuse, the odd pineapple jam the caterers served with the scones. He pointedly doesn’t touch the bright pink folder she’s left on the side table.

Doris asks after his twin boys and brags lightly of her own children, who are perfectly ordinary in Hassan’s assessment.

“Speaking of children, what do you think of our future boss?”

Assiz can’t exactly say what he really thinks. “I don’t miss Ivan any less after meeting his son.”

“Oh, absolutely. Mr. O. had a spark in him right to the end. Such a visionary.”

“Not that the succession plan isn’t working.”

“Of course. We all knew this would happen eventually. Thank goodness Ivan thought ahead. I can’t see young Erik setting the world on fire, although from all reports he seems to be a nice boy.”

“From all reports he seems to be unambitious, irregular in habits, and a bit of a slob.”

“We have the same sources. It could be a phase.”

“It could be. We really don’t know much about him.”

Doris smiles widely. “I have come into a bit of additional information.” She hands him the file and pours more tea as he reads.

“Hmph. Well at least we won’t have to worry about the mother coming back into the picture.”

“Killed in a car crash in Budapest, or so he says. Of course, Ivan didn’t bother telling his son his own mother’s name, so we can’t investigate,” Doris says. “I wonder what she looked like. No beauty, I’m guessing. I bet he hired the sturdiest surrogate he could find. Probably had her take an IQ test.”

“You have the blood of Magyars and Livonian nobility in your veins,” Hassan reads. “Hmph. I thought the old man was Russian.”

“Estonia has a large minority of ethnic Russians. I never heard him refer to family once in the nine years I knew him; no idea where all that Baltic pride comes from.”

“It looks like the boy was raised out west, whatever that means.”

“Not California, not with that prison pallor. Of course, he’s been ill.”

“That would explain the scrawniness. You’d think an Ostrovsky would have more substance.”

Doris shrugs. Unlike Assiz, she’s raised teenagers and knows the gawky stage well. “He could grow yet.”

“Does it seem odd that Ivan was so secretive with his own kid? He doesn’t even name the caretakers or tutors. Mr. M., Mrs. J. What’s up with that?”

“I suppose he was afraid of the letters being intercepted. Ivan was always cautious. Of course, he could have told us about the child.”

“Instead he told the child about us.”

“All those warnings about ‘undue influence’ and ‘making your own decisions.’ It’s like he thought we’d take over. Which we would, of course, if necessary. I wouldn’t allow any child to suffer neglect, never mind an Ostrovsky.”

“It doesn’t make sense to keep the kid hidden away for years and then hand him over to a pipsqueak lawyer.”

“That pipsqueak lawyer has executive power over our heir for the next few years. We’ll have to keep him on side.”

Assiz shakes his head. “You can try influencing him but I wash my hands of the whole enterprise. My concern is with the health of the company, not the kid. As long as Torres doesn’t rob or endanger the boy, I wish him joy of it.”

“They’re going to Buffalo Monday morning, commercial flight. I offered the jet but Torres wanted the boy to get used to roughing it, or some such nonsense. Fordyce will be accompanying them.”

“Good. He can assess the situation. Oh, Christ. What if he sends the boy to live with hippies? Or socialists?”

“I thought you were washing your hands of the matter.”

Assiz makes an impatient gesture. “I’m going to take it as read that you agree with my approach.”

“Make the company as strong as possible and be prepared to bail?”

“Right. Make it as idiot proof as possible, shore up our own stock.”

“And if he turns out not to be an idiot, we’re all that much better off!”

Chapter Text

Andre ends up agreeing to use the corporate plane after all. Fordyce decides that he has higher priorities than babysitting and sends Ito who is, he reminds his employers, more than competent and much more approachable. They’ll leave Monday at 9 in the little Cessna that Ivan loved and return in time for dinner.

Erik spends the next two days reading everything he can find about Buffalo, which isn’t much. Redwing uses internet and electronic mail, but these aren’t yet the routine household tools they will become in a few years. Erik is forced to rely on reference books - frustratingly dry - and tourist information - frustratingly hard to find. He tries a bookstore without finding anything specific enough, although he does find Madeleine Wattell’s latest novel, the story of a woman who uses lucid dreaming and psychedelic drugs to investigate her husband’s mysterious death. Erik buys it to get an insight into the woman he cannot yet think of as a possible foster mother. The writing is beautiful and the story is dark and strange and surprisingly violent. Erik isn’t sure what to do with that information.

Erik gets up too early and waits impatiently for Ito to pick him up. He sits in the front seat and listens to Ito’s soothing small talk as they drive to Teterboro Airport, where Andre is already waiting with his satchel of documents. Andre is excited and a bit nervous, and not just about the meeting.

“Wow! This plane is so… small!”

“The Cutlass is a great little plane. A little heavy compared to the Skyhawk, but still fun,” Erik answers.

Ito raises his eyebrows at Erik’s statement. He was under the impression that the boy had spent his whole life sequestered away. “A small plane gives the opportunity for wonderful views but poor conversation, Mr. Torres. You’ll want to keep your coat on.”

The flight is noisy and it feels a bit like being shipped in a tin can, but Andre manages to relax and enjoy the view. He catches sight of Erik looking towards the cockpit with an expression of pure longing and for the first time has real sympathy for his client. As enormous as the gift of regeneration is, hiding a lifetime of experience can’t be easy. His ward doesn’t even have a learner’s permit yet.

Luckily for Andre, his first single engine flight takes place in good conditions. They arrive a few minutes early and land smoothly. Ito guides his charges to a waiting car with tinted windows and allows them a little privacy by rolling up the partition. In about thirty minutes they’ll be at the Wattells’ and Erik can’t stop bouncing his knee as they drive.

“You’re going to have to relax or they’ll think you’re on something.”

“I didn’t even have coffee this morning. I’m cutting down because I want to clear six feet.”

“Really? You think you’ll get a redo on your height?”

“Why not? The American diet makes for big people. And I was very close last time. Christ. I feel like I’m going on a mission.”

“It will be fine.”

“I haven’t had a chance to really study for this part.”

“Why act? It’s not like they’ll suspect the truth. Nobody would.”

“Come on, Andre. You know what I’m talking about.”

“I guess, but you’re overthinking this. Just be this version of yourself: polite, a little old-fashioned, serious. I’ve told them that you’re an orphan who’s had a very strict upbringing. You haven’t been around other kids much, and you didn’t know you were rich until your father died. You were raised by paid attendants You don’t even know their real names.”

“So they’re not expecting me to know who TLC is or anything normal.”

“No. Wait. You know who TLC is?”

The boy shrugs. “I saw one of their videos yesterday. They’re good.”

“See? You’re adjusting already.

“They may very well change their minds after we’ve met anyway.”

“Unless you bite the dog at the meeting I think they’ll give you a chance.”

The only answer is a grumble.

“They know you need your space. They know you haven’t spent any time in family situations. They know you have an issue with anger management.”

“You just told them that? Andre, what the hell were you thinking?”

“No, listen, just listen.”

For the next fifteen minutes the lawyer explains theories and techniques of modern parenting. He describes the function of school counsellors and child therapists and assures his client that neither Marcus nor Maddy were at all surprised or upset by this information.

“And, speaking very frankly, you can’t deny that your anger has been a destructive force in your life.”

Erik flexes his hands and takes a deep breath. “All right. Yes, in the past, but I’ve had it under control for decades. I haven’t even blown up at security when they check what I’m reading, or change the channel to family fare, or tell me to wear a jacket.”

“Why not?”

Erik glares at him. “Because I saw myself in the mirror and realized how ridiculous I would look to him; a dumb kid blowing his top over a trivial matter.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It was the same when I hit 70. People were afraid of making me angry until then, but afterwards… they didn’t want me to get angry for fear that I’d have a heart attack. It was humiliating, so I learned discretion.”

“So why not learn it now, with a professional who makes everything easier? Look at it this way: it’s one of the many things you should have had the first time around. Make the most of the chance.”

“I cannot discuss this now.”

“Fine. I will continue making arrangements as I see fit with the understanding that you can make changes. You’ll stop hating me when it turns out that I’m right about everything and am, in fact, a genius.”

***

Erik sulks until they hit the suburbs and slow down. By the time they stop at the Wattell house he’s smooth as milk, proving to Andre that he can be calm, dammit. The house itself meets with immediate approval. It’s a lovingly maintained white Tudor on a quarter acre near Hoyt Lake, a big house, but not a mansion. The yard is a little bare this early in the spring, but there are shrubs and vines and attractive stonework. Marcus meets them at the door. He’s a tall, muscular man, a bit thick in the middle. His salt-and-pepper hair and beard are perfectly trimmed and he wears tortoiseshell glasses. Maddy is also tall, but very slight, and silvery, with light grey hair pinned up, pale eyes, and a long serious face that breaks into a surprisingly toothy smile when she sees them.

The meeting begins at the kitchen table where the Wattells have laid out sandwiches and little plates of fruit, cheese, and bakery cookies. Andre and Erik sit facing Marcus and Maddy, with Ito hovering in the doorway. The boy is stiff and formal and almost silent, but he eats and listens as the potential host parents talk about their willingness to make a home and how much their own children enjoyed growing up in the area. As they step into the living room to begin the tour a brown and white pointer mix gets up from its bed in front of the fireplace to greet them.

To Andre’s surprise, Erik lights up at the sight of a pet. “What’s his name?”

“That’s Buddy,” Marcus answers. “He’s a sweet boy, aren’t you, Buddy?” Erik scratches the dog behind the ears until he trundles back to his bed.

They start in the basement, which is entirely finished and includes a pantry filled with boxes and jars and a chest freezer, two home offices, an exercise room, and a small guest room. The main floor of the house is quite open, with a large kitchen and dining room, a living room with a fireplace, a powder room and a very attractive sunroom overlooking the backyard where they can see a covered stone patio and several planters.

There are three bedrooms and two full bathrooms on the second floor. These are furnished, but only one is occupied full time these days.

“Michael and Sarah visit as often as they can, but of course they’re very busy. We leave their rooms ready even if half their stuff is gone,” Maddy explains. “The guest room is mostly for their friends and family visitors. We were thinking that you could live in the attic suite.”

They go up in an elevator, which strikes Andre as an odd thing to have in a private home. Marcus explains that he had completely renovated the top floor and added an elevator because they’d planned to have his mother move in.

“When she announced plans to move, her boyfriend panicked and proposed marriage, and now they’re living in a condo in Florida. We’re lucky if we can reach her on the phone. I still wonder if it was all part of her plan.”

The attic suite is actually two long, narrow rooms on the top floor that form an L-shape with a bathroom at the join. The ceiling is irregular which means there are places where one can’t stand up, but there’s still a decent amount of floor space. The walls are all white and the floor is light hardwood to make the most of the light. Most of the odd corners and short walls have been turned into storage with built-in shelving and racks. The suite takes up half the floor, with the other half dedicated to storage and the elevator shaft.

“You’d probably want to sleep in the room overlooking the garden,” says Marcus. There’s lots of room for a bed and a little table. The other room would be like a sitting room for you. It’s wired for cable TV. And look: this is something I added.”

At the end of the bedroom where one would expect a window, there is instead a narrow door leading to a small, screened sunroom carved out of the roof.

“The previous owners were going to put a hot tub up here, but they screwed it up, so I made this little retreat. There’s room for a hammock, or a cot if you want to sleep out in the summer.”

“We re-insulated the whole roof three years ago and it’s made a huge difference. It’s very comfortable and quiet up here, and you’d have some privacy,” Maddy adds.

Erik thanks the couple for the tour and asks for a day to think it over, and of course they agree. They understand completely. In the car Andre asks if he should keep looking for billets.

“No need. I’ll take this one if they’ll have me. I just want them to have a day to call you with some excuse. Maybe another aging relative will need their attic and they won’t have room for me.”

“Mr. Ostrovsky. Really? You underestimate people.”

“Just give them a chance.”

***

The Wattells don’t find an excuse, and Andre is jubilant. Of course, it’s not just a matter of stuffing a few things in a duffle and driving up to Buffalo. First, Redwing has the security team assess the house and install new security equipment. Hassan wants to have a full-time security person on the premises but this is a mad idea, and he eventually agrees to more discreet options. There’s a retired marine first lieutenant right in town who will keep an eye on the boy for a handsome fee, and Redwing will send their own people to check on him regularly. They will also investigate Erik’s future teachers, doctor, therapist, and friends, something they don’t mention to Andre.

Erik has very little to pack, but there are other preparations. Luckily, the quickest way to get anything done is to start a sentence with “Michael, I want to…” It’s Michael who helps Erik with thank you letters and packs up a gift for the Mistsumotos. It’s Michael who arranges for almost all of Ivan’s clothes to be donated and the bulk of his effects put in storage, particularly his firearms which will have to be locked up in a safe within a safe.

One afternoon Andre is ushered into the master bedroom where Michael is insisting that he will not rob a child.

“For god’s sake. Andre, tell him to take the picture. My dad wanted him to have it. It’s in the will. He even mentioned it in a letter.”

“Take the picture, Michael. He’ll only send it to you if you refuse.”

“And these, Erik adds, handing over two small boxes containing cufflinks, one platinum and sapphire, one gold and garnet. “They’re for you and your, um, your friend.”

Michael takes the boxes and his eyes grow a little moist. “For my Paul. Excuse me.”

“That was nice,” Andre remarks when Michael is gone. The boy shrugs.

“Michael deserves something personal. He always liked the Caballero more than I did anyway. I want you to take these.” He hands over another set, this one onyx set with tiny diamonds.

“Are you sure? These are very nice.”

“I’m sure. I have so many and who knows when I’ll wear them again. I mean, look at all this.”

Andre looks at the large wooden box where he spots a gold cigarette holder nestled in its own velvet cubby and several pairs of cufflinks; gold, platinum, lapis, gemstones, rock crystal, and enamel. Some look more than a century old, at least to Andre’s eye.

“Those jade ones are crazy,” Andre says, gesturing at two elaborately carved buttons set in gold with rubies and diamonds.

Erik laughs. “Those aren’t cufflinks, they’re earrings. The woman I took them from has been dead for more than forty years. I’d give them to Maribella but they’re a reminder of a hard lesson. I’d like her to have the thangka on the bed though.”

The thangka is a painting of a beautiful green woman in a garden surrounded by curious characters. She’s the Green Tara, a savior deity, the boy explains. Not terribly valuable, but it’s a contemporary piece and the artist is worth watching.

“Are you planning to take any of Ivan’s things?”

“Not much. I’m not even taking the bundle of letters - that’s for you to keep safe. I figure I might need a tie in case there’s a wedding or something, and there’s a sweater I’ve had since 1955 that’s fashionable again, but not much else. Part of me is looking forward to being less encumbered.”

“And it will all be waiting.”

“So you keep telling me.” Erik smiles slyly. “One more thing for Michael.” He gathers up all the striped and chromed lead pencils from the medical visits and binds them with a rubber band. “He will love these. Oh, and can you see that he gets his inheritance as quickly as possible? Mrs. Katz too. I’d like to know my debts were paid.”

The few things he’s acquired since Japan fit in a single suitcase, but Erik decides to bring his old cedar steamer trunk, a huge piece of luggage repaired so often it’s hard to say if any part is original. His clothes barely cover the bottom of the trunk, but he adds a Japanese quilt in several shades of blue, and a few books: H.G. Wells, Shakespeare, The Tale of the Genji, two volumes on Balkan history, and The Travels by Ibn Battuta. At Andre’s urging, he includes a chess set, the most modest one among Ivan’s collection. To Andre’s disapproval, he tosses in a blackjack.

“I surrendered my guns, Andre, be happy with that. It’s not reasonable to ask me to go completely unarmed after all these years. Besides, I probably won’t even take it out of the trunk.”

Andre concedes the point. A soldier is always a soldier and while he’s never been a gun guy, he knows many who are. Marcus himself went through undergrad on an ROTC scholarship and has a sidearm carefully locked away in the house. Maddy grew up shooting at cans in Colorado and has been known to pick off a rabbit or grouse for the pot on camping trips. To each their own. Besides, if he confiscated the blackjack Erik would just find something worse.

Erik does one last check around the bedroom, closes and locks the trunk, and throws the key in his backpack. Never in any of his lives has he been quick to see the humor in a situation, but he has to admit that reducing himself to a single box after seventy-plus years of striving is pretty funny. Still, better than being in a box himself. As Andre keeps saying, everything will wait, and for now he will travel light.

Chapter Text

Michael Shaw will be damned if the son of his late employer is going to live in some barren garret like a Victorian governess. He corners Andre and insists on “making arrangements” for the young man. Andre warns Marcus and Maddy to expect deliveries but even he is surprised at what Michael considers the bare minimum: in addition to basic bedroom furniture, Michael orders a small red couch, a bean bag chair, a computer desk and new Apple computer, a television with a VCR player, towels, bedding, a dorm fridge, a one-cup coffee maker, and a framed poster of an antique map.

“Michael, we’re sending him to Buffalo, not Siberia.”

“What if it gets cold in the winter? What if he wants to have friends over?” Andre finally talks him down when Michael suggests having the rooms repainted in the two days they have left before the move.

Marcus calls Andre when all the items have been delivered and arranged. “I wish you could see the place, it looks great. I’ve even hooked up the tv and the computer”

“I hope this hasn’t been too much trouble for you both.”

“Oh, heck no. We would have had to do a lot more than this if mom had moved in. It looks very comfortable though. I think Erik will like it.”

“Well, we’re very grateful, both of us. Even if Erik doesn’t show it well.”

“It’s no bother. I’m just surprised that everything is new. I figured he’d want more things from home.”

“I think he decided it wasn’t worth it to ship what he had. He also needs teenager furniture now.” It’s sort of the truth.

“I see that. I hope he can relax with us. It’s a shame to see someone that young so tightly wound.”

“Living with you and going to a school with other kids will be a big adjustment. He promised to work on it, but, well, I hope you can be patient.”

“It’s going to be odd to have a teenager in the house again, not to mention all the precautions.”

“You’ve never had a security system?”

“We thought we did! The Redwing people just laughed at it. Do they seriously think someone might try to kidnap Erik?”

“It’s an excess of caution, but that’s to be expected. The late Mr. Ostrovsky was pretty paranoid, maybe with good reason. Erik is too, to a lesser extent, and he is the heir to a controversial business. They just want to be careful. It’s probably overkill, but Erik hasn’t really been out in the world before.” Again, almost the truth.

“That’s good to know. Will you be dropping him off tomorrow?”

“Erik wanted to make it quick, he’s flying up with a guard who will drop him off. They’ll be in by mid-afternoon. I will be calling after dinner, though, if that’s okay.”

Andre hears a clamor and then Maddy is on the line. She asks after Maribella and little Miranda. Perhaps it would be a good idea to bring them over for dinner once Erik is settled in? She’d love to see the baby, maybe talk over some foundation business.

***

“So what’s the verdict?”

“After all of five hours? It’s fine. I haven’t done anything crazy, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”

“They’re welcoming you? You have things to talk about?”

“Small talk, making expectations clear, you know. Like people would if a fifteen-year-old suddenly showed up to live at their house. Have you heard of a chore wheel?”

“Sure. Lots of families use them.”

“I’m on one now, but it’s hardly onerous. They seem to be under the impression that I’ve had servants all of my life. I’m going to let them think that, so don’t say anything.”

“I won’t. Are they feeding you enough?”

“Yes, thankfully. They do keep pointing out ‘healthier options,' which is pretty funny. I’m going to fill up my fridge tomorrow”

“How do you like the furniture?”

“Did you and Michael pick all that out?”

“Mostly Michael. He was worried about you.”

“Of course he was. It’s all good. Very good, actually. When Michael can buy his bed and breakfast it will be beautiful, I’m sure. I’ll have to pay him a visit.”

“I am expediting his cheque.”

“Good. I’m not sorry you had the place fixed up.”

“You think you’ll be comfortable?

“So far it seems fine. Strange, but fine.”

“Everything about this is incredibly strange. I honestly can’t imagine what it’s like for you.”

“I honestly can’t describe it. Marcus went to Blockbuster to pick up a bunch of movies. They’re going to make popcorn of all things. I’ve never eaten popcorn in my life.”

“Aww, that’s nice though! You should hang out with them. Enjoy the down time. You’re going to be busy as hell next week with school admissions and who knows what else, so relax while you can.”

“So I’m just going to sit in the living room with these good people and their good dog and watch a good movie. I’m living in a hallucination.”

“And eat good popcorn.”

“Right. I should let you go.”

“I’ll call tomorrow. And just… live in the moment. At least try. Second chances, remember?”

***

While the house is dark and quiet, long after everyone has gone to bed, Erik lies awake in his single bed. He’s tried reading and deep breathing but nothing works. He’s disoriented and his mind is racing. The restlessness is physical as well. When he first crawled out of the rejuvenation pod he was weak and in shock. His recovery was complicated because along with the resiliency of youth, he had the immune system of a baby and had spent most of his time in Japan nursing a cold. Since this return he’s been gaining steadily, and he can’t remember if this is what it felt like to be fifteen sixty years ago, but if it was it’s no wonder he got into so much trouble. Sometimes he almost vibrates with energy. He’s not all that strong just yet, but that will come. He’d like to climb a tree, or run a mile, or fly a plane. He’d like to go to a club and pick up someone’s angry wife or morose husband. At that thought he resorts to a time-honored cure for sleeplessness, but it barely takes the edge off. Normally at this stage of insomnia he’d go out for a walk in the Financial District, but if he were to leave this house at 2 a.m. Redwing security would get an instant alert. Besides, he doesn’t want to worry Marcus and Maddy at this early stage.

He pads down the stairs to the main floor. The sunroom at the back of the house has a fine view of the yard, but there are no stars, no signs of nature. Perhaps he should have chosen one of the more rural options. Those would also come with limitations and their own set of problems. God damn the Sato lab. He wishes he believed in hell so he could imagine Ishikawa roasting.

At least this time I’m protected. It’s not like prison or some mad scientist’s lab. It’s not even like the military. If I really hate it, Andre will find something else. If anyone tries to fuck with me, the wrath of Redwing will fall on them. He stares into the darkness thinking about the future. There are years ahead and so many variables. He will make mistakes, but he’ll be damned if he’ll repeat old ones. In the meantime, he will savor these new experiences, even this one.

Erik hears footsteps behind him and spins around, only to see the dog wagging his stubby tail.He squats down to scratch Buddy around the ears. The dog licks his face and nuzzles in for more petting.

“We can’t go out, and we can’t stay up all night, Buddy. Let’s go back to bed.”

***

Andre does put a burn on payouts to Michael and Mrs. Katz. They’re small compared to the rest of the estate, but will have a huge impact on the recipients. Lynda Katz turns out to be an energetic woman in her fifties, eager to build her new catering business. As for why she didn’t even try to stay on at Redwing, there’s no mystery.

“Mr. Ivan was a good boss, but no challenge. He was getting fussy, too. I like to cook for people who like to eat, you know? Not the same thing all the time.”

“The meals Michael ordered from you were great, and Erik appreciated them very much.”

“Erik’s the kid?” She shakes her head. “Weird to think of him having a son. Not the family type, not one bit. I never saw a woman in that apartment either, so whoever he got to have his baby…” she shrugs.

“I should tell you that there are rumors that you’re the mother,” Andre tells her, which makes Lynda double up in snorting laughter.

“Of course there are! Those Redwing people are the worst,” she says, emphasizing the last two words.

“I quelled those rumors very firmly. Erik was born seven years before you met Mr. Ostrovsky. That might not be enough to stop scandal sheets from trying to interview you.”

“I won’t say a word to anybody. I hate those bastards, and besides, like I said, Mr. Ivan was very decent to me.”

She sends Andre off with two pans of frozen lasagne and her best wishes.

Michael and Paul are more effusive, although they do not give Andre anything beyond a cup of coffee and an invitation to stay at their new guest house once they’ve fixed it up. Michael keeps turning the conversation to young Erik; he still doesn’t like the idea of the “Mr. Ostrovsky’s boy” way up in the hinterland. Andre assures him repeatedly that Erik is doing well. They talk almost every day and he actually likes Buffalo, at least so far.

“I just hope he knows that he can always come back. There are people who would be glad to take care of him.”

“He knows that. The Wattells are lovely people, and he seems to be doing just fine. I’ll tell him you were asking about him.”It’s true that they talk every day. Their standing arrangement has been for Andre to call at 7 p.m. and for the first week that’s how it goes. There isn’t much news, which Andre finds comforting: Erik gets a library card and a learners’ permit and learns the routine of the house. It’s fine, everything fine, he’s just a little bored, a little antsy.

That will not do. Andre has researched his ward’s ancient history enough to know that when he’s bored, trouble follows. He makes a few calls, pulls a few strings, and leaves a message for Erik to call him as soon as possible.

Erik does call back, from a public park on his new Nokia phone.

“I don’t know why I didn’t get one of these sooner, they’re very handy.”

“It’s very new technology.”

“True. I bet everyone will have one in a year though. I need to bring that up with the team soon.”

 

“Good idea. I’m sure they’re eager for your input. Hey, I have good news. I lit a fire under the asses of the Silver Birch administration. They understand that your education has been unorthodox and are willing to start early assessments so you can catch up over the summer, if necessary. And I’ve been vetting tutors. And you’re cleared for sports.”

“I am? What does that mean?”

“It means I finally got the test results back from Dr. Eton. There was a mixup on the file which makes me wonder if your friends Doris and Assiz got their grubby mitts on it. Anyway, you’re fine. There’s nothing you can’t do as long as you take precautions. Don’t ride a bike without a helmet, maybe avoid hockey for a while. There’s no sign of lingering neurological damage, heart and lungs perfect, bloodwork fine except for a slight vitamin D deficiency. He wants you to take vitamins and spend more time outside.”

“Well.”

“Are you surprised?”

“No, not exactly. I didn’t realize until this second that I was even concerned about it. This is very good news.”

“He really stressed avoiding head injuries. I realize that what happened to you wasn’t exactly a simple concussion, but I think he has a point.”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“I’m serious though.”

“Yes, Andre, I get it. I intend to keep my health this time around. As much as I can, anyway. There’s no need to nag.”

“How do you feel these days?”

There’s a pause as Erik reflects. “I still get tired for no apparent reason and there’s this… disorientation. I try to reach something and can’t, even now. Otherwise… quite good generally, reflexes, appetite, all the things I took for granted the first time I was this age. My energy levels are wildly uneven.”

“Maybe you’re going through a growth spurt.”

“You know, you might be right. And I’m certainly out of shape; been coasting on rejuvenation too long. I need to ask Marcus about using his weight room.”

“Good idea. You should get a bike and some hiking boots. Can you swim? That’s really good exercise.”

“Not proper American swimming. I suppose I could learn.”

“Sure, they have lessons on all the time. You can get back to martial arts too, just be careful.”

“I’ll have to talk with Marcus and Maddy tonight. Maybe they won’t worry about me so much now.”

“Oh, dear. Are they fussing?”

“No, they’re not like that at all, but I can tell. They keep giving me opportunities to talk but I really don’t have much to say. I guess to them it looks like moping. ”

“They can’t understand how weird ordinary life is to you. You do have a lot to learn.”

“True enough. I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned is how god damned soft I got being taken care of by Michael and Mrs. Katz. Now there’s no-one to arrange my schedule, and set out my meds, or put meals in front of me at regular intervals.”

“Aw, poor baby.”

“I like it. That kind of thing is fine for an old man with a business to run, not for a young man with his whole life ahead of him.”

“This is why I hoped you’d go to the Wattells. With the Blums you’d be too pampered and you’d be going along with their lives instead of having your own. Marcus and Maddy believe in a long leash, although I wouldn’t push it too far. They’re as worried about security as anyone at Redwing.”

“I’ll be easy on them. Oh, and I have a request.”

“Shoot.”

“I was thinking of going to New York before school starts, but the apartment is all packed up. I could stay at a hotel…”

“You can stay with us.”

“If it’s all right with Maribella.”

“Listen to yourself. Of course it’s all right with Maribella. She asks about you all the time.”

“Really?”

“I have no reason to lie about this. Ask her yourself next time we have an evening call.”

“Sure.”

“Or if that’s too onerous, ask her when we visit in three weeks.”

“What? Both of you?”

“All of us. We’re stopping on the way upstate to visit my sister. Maddy invited us to stay the night but I thought I’d spare you that.”

“I’d be fine with it, actually. In fact, why don’t you take the company plane? You did so well last time.”

“Hahaha, very cute. Your snarky teen impersonation is excellent.”

***

From that conversation on, their calls become less regular and more interesting. Marcus is happy to show Erik how to use his weight machines and they start working out together. The Wattells take him bike shopping and he buys a handsome Raleigh commuter bike. He takes a series of ten swimming lessons at a nearby gym and transforms his untutored paddling into proper strokes. Andre finds a recent education grad named Bill Wojek who has a few months to spare before he starts his first teaching job in August. He will prepare Erik for a set of modified final exams and give him some test taking strategies. The tests will be a challenge, although not in the way Andre anticipated.

“How many languages is it realistic for an American my age to know?” Erik asks during another park call.

“Three quarters. How many do you know?”

“Twelve, conversationally. Only four if we’re talking complete fluency and writing. And Latin of course, but that hardly counts these days. Not even priests use it any more.”

“Jesus god. I completely forgot that English is your second language.”

“English is my fifth language, Andre. I gather that I should keep that to myself?”

“God, yes. But let Silver Birch in on, say, two. That way they won’t make you waste your time with Basic German. Are you finding Bill useful?”

“Absolutely. The history I’m expected to know is highly questionable, but I can handle that. It’s the math that’s giving me the most trouble. I’ve been using math for seventy years but apparently I’ve been doing it wrong. He’s got me using an entire page to answer a question I can do in my head.”

“If it makes you feel better, I feel the same way. It’s like they change math education every five years to make parents feel stupid. When are your assessments?”

“Next Tuesday. Should I be worried?”

“No, of course not. These are general assessments, so don’t worry too much about acting the part of a kid. Keep a lid on the languages but otherwise do your best, or they’ll place you way below your abilities. You don’t want to be bored.”

***

Despite what he had told Erik, Andre is worried about the assessments. Erik’s experience and academic background (whatever it might be) won’t help him with these glorified intelligence tests, and he has questions about Erik’s brain age that he wouldn’t dare voice. As it turns out, Erik does extremely well, to the point where the Silver Birch staff are talking about advanced placement even before he takes his modified Grade 9 finals. When the results are couriered to his office Andre is astonished, then embarrassed by his own astonishment. Of course Erik is intellectually gifted. Just because the man wasn’t an academic in his earlier life doesn’t mean he didn’t use his brain to bedevil the police forces of five continents and build a business from nothing. Remember who he was, Andre reminds himself. Old Ivan will be back some day, stronger than ever.

Chapter Text

To hear Erik tell it, his life is now free of care and responsibility, bland and sweet as rice pudding. They’d joked about him living the life of a spoiled American brat and now he is. Soon he’ll be sneaking peach schnapps and weed and yelling at the Wattells, or so he says. Andre doesn’t rely on Erik’s testimony alone. He checks in regularly and discreetly with Marcus and Maddy, Lieutenant Clark, and Bill Wojek, the tutor. One word keeps coming up.

Marcus reports that Erik is doing well with his new Raleigh, despite not having ridden before. He’s also very disciplined about using the free weights and practicing his swimming. The boy is showing promise of real athletic ability and is good about helping out around the house and yard. “I think he’ll be a little more social when Sarah and Michael come to visit. He’s an old soul.”

Maddy says that Erik is very disciplined about the chore wheel, and has taken to cooking once a week, which they both appreciate, even if it is a bit experimental. “He never complains, but I think he thinks we rely on the crock pot and the deli a little much.” She is concerned that he so rarely interrupts them while they’re working. “I hope he realizes that if he does need something we’re there to help, because sometimes it’s more like living with a cat than a boy.”

Redwing’s security liaison, Lieutenant Clark has been keeping himself clear of “the kid” on the theory that if Erik doesn’t know what he looks like, he won’t run away. He tells Andre that Erik has regular habits and is always studying, working, or fast on the move. He gets up very early to walk the dog, then hits the books, then back outside for biking or other exercise. “It’s nice that he’s so regular with the little mutt. It’s good discipline for a kid to look after a pet.”

Wojek notes that his pupil is a self-starter with, naturally, a lot of discipline. He tells Andre that the boy’s education has been decent, but a little old fashioned. “He knows more about Ancient Rome than he’ll ever need to and almost nothing about the Civil Rights movement. He’ll also need to work on his five paragraph essays no matter how ‘babyish’ he thinks they are. He is sure Erik will be able to fill in the odd holes in his education easily and asks Andre’s permission to take the boy out to the Albright-Knox gallery and the museum of science as he finds Erik’s approach to education “a little driven and joyless.”

Andre is pre-packing for his first week off in over a year when the phone rings. He lets Maribella get it as he will surely lose track of the baby socks if he stops now. He has all the tiny clothes stacked when it occurs to him that Erik might be begging off on the visit and he becomes irrationally annoyed with his client/ward. Happily, he has the wrong idea.

“He passed his finals.”

“What? Oh, of course he did.”

“I know, but you notice he didn’t wait the two days to tell us in person?”

“Was he bragging?”

“He wasn’t specific but I got the impression that the tutoring paid off big time. Silver Birch is satisfied, which is the main thing. And they’re having a little party Saturday night when we arrive, nothing elaborate.”

The party is far from elaborate, but there’s no doubt it’s all about Erik who is eating up the attention in the most dignified way he can manage. Maribella greets the boy with a big hug, and Andre notes that he returns it almost naturally.

“So good to see you! You look great!”

“So do you! I’m glad you all could come.”

Maribella isn’t flattering the kid. It’s only been a few months but Erik has grown an inch, put on a few pounds of muscle, and acquired a light tan from biking and walking Buddy. He graciously accepts their gifts - music CDs picked out by Maribella - and shows them the attic which is set up almost like a studio apartment. The bedroom section is spare and clean with only the Japanese quilt and a blue bedside lamp for decoration. The other branch of the L-shape is a little busier, a working room; notes stacked beside the computer, flyers and notes tacked on a bulletin board over the desk, a few framed prints - nothing expensive - and shelves with books and DVDs, mostly recent buys. The chess set on the coffee table is in play and there’s a book of chess exercises open on the chair. The most striking addition is a stained glass panel of an airplane flying over mountains, a piece by a local artist, Erik explains.

“This is a dream room,” says Mirabella. “You even have a little fridge! Bet that comes in handy.”

“Anything that holds food is handy right now. I’m always hungry.”

That turns out to be an understatement. The family sits down to fajitas and Erik eats three tortillas stuffed as full as he can manage and a big slice of lemon cake. After dinner Andre suggests that the two of them wash the dishes and give the Wattells a break. Maribella and Maddy have things to talk over anyway, and Marcus wants to play with the baby.

Under cover of running water and the clink of dishes, Andre asks some lawyerly questions, trying to determine Erik’s real state of mind.

“Andre, it’s fine. Everything’s fine. The Wattells are great. Why are you so worried?”

“Worried is not the exactly the word. I’m glad you’re getting along and you’re safe and healthy. I’m just worried that you’ll get bored. You know what you’re like when you’re bored.”

Erik drops his voice. “I can amuse myself. All right. I admit things were a little dull at first, but now that I’m getting back into action, I’m having fun exploring, testing my physical limits. Ask me where the drug dealers hang out.”

Before Andre can react, Marcus comes in to make coffee and help put the dishes away. For the rest of the evening they all gather in the living room to talk about school, work, the holidays, and the wonders that are their children. Miranda provides her share of entertainment by showing off her new store of words which includes “book,” “doggie,” and “Wick,” for Erik. She passes out on a chair by 8:30 and Erik excuses himself soon after. He needs to get up early to walk Buddy, around 6 if Andre wants to join him.

***

Andre very much wants to join him, as much as he resents the early hour on his first day of vacation. Buddy is already dancing at the doorway when Andre tiptoes out of the guest room holding his sneakers. He ignores Erik’s smirk until they’ve quietly shut the door and lead the dog out the gate.

“Sleep well?”

“Sure. Bought any drugs?”

“Are you still stewing over that? I only meant that I’ve been exploring the city, all of it.”

“And you’re tweaking me.”

“It’s hard to resist. You’re young, you can take it.”

“So, have you really found out where the drug dealers hang out?”

“Not really, but a lot of deals are done outside record stores and parks. I’m pretty sure I’ve discovered a contractor ripping off the city, but that’s their lookout. Mostly I’m just looking around, learning what I can. The other day I rode my bike all the way to the Tifft Nature Preserve, then walked around for a few hours, then rode back. When I got home I was exhausted. It was great.”

“That does sound fun. It’s just… it doesn’t seem like you to be content with such simple things.”

“Spoken like someone who hasn’t had to think about heartburn with every bite, or woken up with pain from a thirty-year-old injury. Do you have any idea how fast time goes when you’re 75? Believe me, it goes very fast.”

“Oh. And now?”

“The days last forever. It’s a luxury. And instead of being impatient to get them over with, I’m taking my time.” He emphasizes the “my.”

“And the house? It’s lovely, but it’s just a nice, big house. It must seem very ordinary to you.”

“It’s like nowhere I’ve ever lived. Again, compared to where I was the first time I was 15, just having central heat and running water makes it a hundred times better.”

Andre shoots him a side-eye, not sure if Erik is tweaking him again.

“You Americans have a Disney view of Europe. If I told you I’d grown up in a castle, you’d think it was glamorous. They don’t tell you about collapsing walls or trying to bathe in the kitchen while there’s still some heat.”

“So you grew up in a castle?”

“No.”

They walk on in silence with only the birds and a few slow-moving early cars to disturb them. Buddy takes his time sniffing and doing his business, and Erik gestures to the park where they give the dog a longer leash. Eventually the scowl fades from Erik’s face.

“The place I grew up was a monument to poor financial decisions, fecklessness, and a desire to return to a mythical past. It happened to be made of stone. It was absurd, and I have no desire to look backward.”

“Huh. Interesting. It occurs to me that you’re integrating your years of experience with being young again pretty well.”

Erik nods. “That’s a good way of expressing it. It’s not like I was great at maintaining a schedule or studying on my own the first time; military training taught me that and I’m applying old habits to new matters. In other ways…”

“In other ways?”

“In other ways I seem to really be starting over, and it’s unsettling. My emotions are much more labile and wide ranging. No idea if that’s chemical or the mellowing of old age. That is a thing that happens; the ferocity fades along with the eyesight.” He doesn’t make it sound like a good thing.

Buddy gets a wild hair and starts running in circles. He rolls on his back and wriggles outrageously.

“All right, here’s an example. I really like this silly damn dog. How strange is that?”

“He’s a great dog!”

“And if someone tried to hurt Marcus or Maddy, I would remove his skin one layer at a time.”

“Jesus Christ. That’s very… sweet in a way. What would you do if someone went after me or Maribella?”

“It would be the last thing he did. I’m not joking in the least, so you’d better stay out of trouble.”

“I will if you will,” Andre awkwardly pats his ward on the shoulder.

Somehow this breaks the tension between them. They turn around and so does the conversation. Andre tells Erik that he has passed on the news of his academic success to Mr. Hassan.

“And was Assiz impressed?”

“He didn’t believe me,” Andre says. “He seemed to think such a thing impossible, in fact.I had to repeat myself several times. He muttered something about ‘idiot savant’ when he thought I was on hold.’”

Erik looks briefly outraged , then chuckles. “Maybe I overplayed my part. Poor Assiz. He is in for it.”

***

Andre enjoys the week off with his family thoroughly, relieved that his ward is doing well. Two days after his return he gets a call at work that has him dialing Erik’s cell phone in a fury.

“What’s this about you getting into a fight?”

“How do you know that? And it wasn’t much of a fight.”

“Lieutenant Clark told me.”

“I need to meet that guy.”

“Will you be requiring my legal services?”

“Andre, take it easy. It’s nothing. Listen.”

***

What happened was this: With the tests over with, Erik puts physical exertion above academics. He still reads and works on learning the computer, but most of the time he’s outside. So yesterday he’s in a park taking a break and drinking water after a long ride, and he sees a group of three boys his own age skateboarding. They aren’t very good and one in particular keeps falling spectacularly. Erik gets caught up watching them, analyzing their mistakes and wondering if he should get a skateboard. They’re not great for transportation, but they look fun. Maybe he should get skis soon. There are supposedly some good downhill places not far from the city.

One of the boys gets frustrated and yells at him. “Hey, bike boy! You want a show, buy a ticket. Go point your bushy eyebrows somewhere else!”

Erik ignores him and the kid just blows up, cursing and tossing his skateboard to the ground. None of the kids look that formidable, but there are three of them. Two of them are staying put, however. Erik notices that one - the stocky ginger - has a backpack with the Silver Birch logo, and makes up his mind.

“Look, if you want to fight, friend, just say the word.”

“All right! All right! I do say the word!”

“Caleb, come on.” That from the boy with the blue skateboard, a thin, serious-looking kid with a surprisingly deep voice.

“Shut up, Dev! This douchebag wants to go! I say we go!” Caleb is in no mood to back down, but Erik can see he’s no fighter. The kid is well over six feet tall but bony and awkward as hell, all reach, no aim, he’s guessing. He recalls a line from an old movie: the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.

Erik leans his bike on the bleachers and walks over to Caleb, who’s gone pale and has his fists up in a parody of fisticuffs. His feet couldn’t be worse placed. He waits for the first swing, and when it comes Erik brushes it away easily and gets underneath. Instead of a full punch he delivers a sharp but restrained rap to Caleb’s gut, just enough to make him gasp.

“Oh, shit.” The ginger kid knows what’s up.

Caleb is truly furious now, and starts swinging hard. It’s a good thing none of the blows fully land because he has fists like anvils, if he only knew how to use them. Erik parries the punches easily, responding with only light fists and shoves. Caleb tries to use his height to grab Erik and gets a sharp elbow behind the knee that nearly brings him down.The kid doesn’t get the hint though.

“I’m going to get serious if you don’t smarten up,” Erik warns.

“Do your worst!”

“No, don’t!” yells Dev. Too late. Erik nails Caleb three times in the stomach and once under the chin before he can blink. The big kid goes down hard, cursing and clutching himself in a fetal position.

Erik turns to the other boys, fists clenched, ready to keep going. The redhead raises his hands placatingly.

“It’s okay, dude. This is all Caleb.”

Erik nods and backs off as they help their friend to sit up.

“‘Do your worst.’ Nice going, Caleb.” Dev can’t help but rub it in a little.

“Yeah, I did say that. I am truly a genius.” Caleb doesn’t seem to be angry any more, so Erik ventures a question.

“Why did you challenge me if you’re such a useless fighter?”

Caleb stares at him in disbelief. “Oh, man! It’s not enough that you kick my ass? You have to wound me with your words as well?”

“I’m just curious.”

“I have poor impulse control, obviously!” Caleb laughs, a little hysterically. “I make bad decisions!”

Erik apologizes for the fourth punch, as three would have been "more than enough." Caleb flops back down on the ground and moans theatrically.

“You’re a real asshole. What’s your name?” Erik notices that his manner is less affected now that he’s calmed down.

Erik introduces himself. Caleb is Caleb Moore, Dev’s surname is Banerjee, and the ginger kid is J.T. (for James Tyler) MacGregor. As Erik had assumed, they all go to Silver Lake. Today is an inservice day, whatever that means, so they’re off school. As boys sometimes do, they decide that the fight is as good a way to meet as any, and invite Erik to come with them and get a soda. He does so, and as the only one of the group who has dealt with arteriosclerosis, he sticks to sugar-free.

***

Erik doesn’t tell the complete story to Andre, just enough to let him know that the situation is under control.

“You should be pleased that I’m making friends.”

“Some friends!”

“You’d probably approve of them, if you met. Dev is a sensible person. He actually thanked me for avoiding Caleb’s face. They’re all good kids, I think, even Caleb. I’ve seen worse, believe me.”

“Are you going to tell Marcus and Maddie?”

“Hmm. Maybe I should. It would be interesting to see their reaction. You know, they haven’t yelled at me or attempted to punish me once, not even when I hit a pothole on my bike and bent the rim.”

“Why would they punish you for an accident?”

Erik doesn’t answer. Instead he changes the subject to self-defense. In his previous life he’d stayed combat-ready until old age. At sixty-five he’d started training in krav maga, a self defense program designed for people fighting from a position of weakness. He wants to get back into martial arts, and start making regular visits to the shooting range to keep in practice. What would be the best way to go about this, he wants to know.

“Just ask Marcus and Maddy. Tell them your dad got you into target practice and judo or whatever you want to study. Lots of kids go from one class to another. Be careful you don’t over-schedule yourself, though.”

“So if they call you, you’ll say it’s okay?”

“Of course I will. Just be careful, all right? Try not to fight any more.” Even as he says this Andre realizes that it’s pointless. Erik will fight as much as he needs to and that is just how it will be.

Erik confesses his sins to his foster family, and while they’re not happy about the fight, he’s not in trouble. Against all reason, Maddy blames herself in part for not already setting up appointments with the counsellor, so he’s going to have to endure that sooner than he’d hoped. Marcus is more understanding, having fought his way to acceptance too many times as a boy. He’s of the opinion that Erik needs even more outlets for his energy and gladly signs him up for aikido at a downtown studio. Erik waits a few days to ask about the shooting range, expecting Maddy to put her foot down. Instead, she offers to go with him. She’s rusty, but she likes shooting and can use the gun range experience in her next book. Actually, Maddy is glad they’ll have something to do together.

The important thing is that they’re proud of Erik for being honest.

Chapter Text

By the end of May, Erik’s social life has exploded. There are people everywhere and he has constant demands on his time, or so he grouses to Andre. In fact, ‘the guys’ are still in school so he only sees them on weekends and the occasional evening to watch a movie or hang out downtown. Now that Erik has passed his exams, Bill Wojek has cut his visits down to three times a week, the focus is now on cultural improvement and advanced prep. They visit museums and art galleries and form a two-man book club devoted to American literature. At Erik’s insistence, they continue their math work so that there are no surprises when school starts in September. Bill is pleased to still have the tutoring gig. With colleges and universities finishing for the summer the market is a bit flooded.

There lies the source of Erik’s explosion. Michael and Sarah Wattell come home. Sarah is first, flying in from Pennsylvania on May 20, to the delight of her parents. “Don’t fall in love or lust with Sarah,” Andre had warned, but there’s no danger. Sarah is just too wholesome. She gets excellent grades, works hard, takes care of herself, volunteers, and is an affectionate, dutiful daughter. She happens to be stunning, just not in a way Erik has ever found appealing, not at any age. In fact, she reminds him of the tobacco silk beauties that were old-fashioned when he was a boy - the first time, that is. Give her a scarlet robe and a few pounds of gold jewelry and Sarah would make a fine ersatz Egyptian queen. Despite her beauty, she’s a natural, sweet-natured girl whose presence makes the house a brighter, livelier place. Within 48 hours, she’s calling Erik “li’l cuz” which kills any fading ember of desire he might have enjoyed.

Michael arrives a week later in his 1984 Honda Civic with more books than clothes. Erik had assumed the Wattells had taken him in largely because the payments from Redwing would cover tuition, but this is not the case. Sarah has a “free ride” scholarship at Lincoln, and Michael is actually being paid to get his doctorate at Johns Hopkins. He’s in the last stages of his thesis on collective risk theory, and while Erik can understand the utility of Michael’s work, the thought of devoting one’s life to statistics gives him a horrible, claustrophobic feeling. Luckily, Michael doesn’t talk about stats all that often. In fact, once he gets over the astonishment of having a newcomer in the house (“Michael, they told you, like, six times,” Sarah reminds him) he’s very friendly, and very open to games of chess and scrabble.

Looking at Sarah, you wonder how Marcus and Maddy could have created such a specimen of physical perfection. Looking at Michael, you see Maddy’s huge grin, Marcus’s lynx-like eyes, his mother’s narrow face, and his father’s strong chin, a composite of discrete pieces of his parents. When the kids are home the family dynamic changes. There’s more laughter and a looser schedule. There’s less focus on Erik, but more overall attention. And of course, with the kids comes their friends.

Erik had braced himself for an onslaught, but both Sarah and Michael have a small, carefully curated set of friends. Sarah reconnects with a handful of girls from high school who are also home from college, and one older woman from her fill-in job at the history museum. Michael’s friend - the ‘herd of nerds’ as Sarah teasingly calls them - are mostly scattered in jobs and graduate schools across the world, but he has two buddies who have opened up a combination video game parlor/electronics shop right in Buffalo.

Erik is free to escape to his room any time, and often does, but he finds himself hanging around the main floor of the house more and more for the sake of his education. Sarah enjoys cooking more than either of her parents and teaches Erik to make a number of easy, expandable meals. She also introduces him to her favourite authors like Octavia Butler and Langston Hughes by simply handing him books and saying, “read this, you’ll like it.” Michael sets Erik up with a keyboarding tutorial and teaches him some computer basics. Back when he went to high school he learned programming with four other people in a refurbished closet, Michael explains, but Erik will have the chance to take real classes if he wants to. Erik is mostly interested in disguising his handwriting and preserving copies of letters he writes to Maribella, the Mitsumotos in Japan, Michael Shaw in Vermont, and Mike and Rosie Malone in Chicago, but he recognizes the potential of home computers.

School is a frequent topic around the kitchen table. Michael is a year to eighteen months away from completing his PhD., a remarkable accomplishment for a 26-year-old. He went straight from undergraduate to a doctoral program, which Erik hadn’t realized was possible. Sarah is preparing for her final year in an anthropology degree and is wondering if she should take a year off or go straight to grad school. Marcus is trying to persuade her to continue in another HBCU as he did. Maddy just wants her children to have the opportunities she was denied. Erik notices how flinty Maddy’s voice gets when she explains that her family didn’t believe in higher education for girls. She’s still angry, thirty years and two honorary doctorates later.

As much as the family loves education, they don’t always love school. Marcus and the kids speak frankly about racial discrimination, about chances missed and denied, about slights and outright attacks they’ve experienced. Erik has generally viewed racial and ethnic divisions through the eyes of a mercenary, as things to be exploited for propaganda and strategic purposes. He himself was a minority in Lhasa, but while that was a problem, it wasn’t a constant, wide-spread irritant. The thought that someone would overlook the obviously brilliant Michael or see nothing but beauty in Sarah seems absurd, but then he wonders if prejudice is keeping Redwing from getting the best talent available. He’ll have to find a way to look into that.

Sarah’s oldest friend turns out to be Dev Banerjee’s big sister Patty. She visits often. Sometimes she and Sarah take the boys to the shore or out to a movie. Sometimes Patty brings a bottle of wine and they settle in. Erik keeps his head down and hears a lot more than he’d bargained for about the perfidy of men, particularly creepy profs and bad boyfriends. Erik gets a taste of what he’s missed from spending most of his life in male-dominated environments when he overhears Patty and Sarah viciously slag the boy who broke up with Sarah at the end of the school year. He’d wanted Sarah to drop the idea of grad school to support him, a notion Patty finds flatly offensive, or as she puts it, “he should have his balls sliced off for even thinking of it.”

Erik has known a few women who would do the slicing, but it’s still interesting to hear these sheltered American girls plot revenge, and even more so to hear Maddy join in.

“Don’t ever let a man make you less,” she demands, pouring herself a glass of wine. “When I wanted to write, your father built me an office with his own hands. He’d take over with you kids to let me have the time and never complained. It wouldn’t occur to him to complain.”

“But you helped put him through school,” says Sarah. “You didn’t think he was making you less then.”

“Because we were fifty-fifty. If I hadn’t sold my first book so quickly your dad would have paid for my degree in turn. A man who wants to make you less isn’t worth your time.”

The girls finish their wine and go for a walk to Hoyt Lake to meet some other friends. Maddy takes her wine over to the chair where Erik has been discreetly reading. “That goes for you too, kiddo.”

“What does?”

Maddy pulls up an ottoman to sit next to him. “Michael and Sarah will run into people who want to make them less because they’re insecure, or bigoted or just assholes. You won’t get that because you’re a white boy and because some day you’ll be rich, but they’ll get to you another way.”

“How?”

“Flattery, low expectations, indulgence. People will see you as a mark or a resource. They’ll give you drugs and compliments and maybe you’ll take them because they feel good and you’ll be living in a bubble. Those are the obvious pitfalls. There’s also the place that’s being carved out for you. You know Redwing will pressure you into getting a MBA from the most prestigious institution you can wangle and becoming their android CEO.”

“They’ve already sent me a pile of brochures. I’m not even in tenth grade yet.”

Maddy nods. “You could literally spend the rest of your life screwing around. A lot of rich kids do just that, spreading petty destruction everywhere they go. You could also go the other way and become one with your dad’s company. If you want to go your own way, you’re going to have to be strong. I think you can, but it will take more work than you think.”

“I get it. Thanks, Maddy.”

She gives his shoulder a squeeze. “We worry about all of you, you know.”

***

Erik’s calls to Andre are less frequent and regular as summer begins, but they manage to touch base at least once a week. To Andre’s amusement, Erik discusses his time with the Wattells as if he’s observing an exotic culture. He notes that while Sarah teases Michael every day, she also brags about him. Michael refers to Sarah as “brat” or “the pestilence” but he also has long, serious talks with her about her future. Erik hears the story about how the one physical fight Michael’s had in his life was five years ago, with a grown man who drunkenly attempted to pull Sarah off the street.

When one of Michael’s friends scoffs at Erik’s chess setup, Michael gently but immediately smacks him down. “My foster-brother there could kick your ass at chess, and I would let him.” Erik tries out this approach himself when Caleb Moore pays Sarah a compliment in words he wouldn’t dare say to her face. Erik immediately raps him upside the head. “That’s my foster sister you’re talking about. Besides, that’s not how one discusses women. It’s coarse and offensive.”

The thing about Caleb, Erik explains, is that he has a boorish streak, but is ashamed of it. Moore senior has a number of car dealerships and does his own television ads, usually in costume. “When I told him not to talk about Sarah, he tried arguing for about thirty seconds,” he tells Andre. “Then he started talking about how real gentlemen in England behave. I swear Americans get most of their information about the world from films.”

Erik visited the Moore house once and was struck by the icy atmosphere and the nasty undertone to everything Bob Moore said. Candice Moore is as silent as Bob is loud, and Erik would bet money she’s planning an exit. Caleb hates his father, Erik realizes, but can’t help being like him even as he fights his own nature. Erik can see that some day Caleb and his father will have a permanent break, but how will it come about? Silence? Disownment? Violence? He is curious to see how it plays out.

Dev and J.T. have less drama in their families, but my goodness, the trivial things normal people get upset about! The Banerjees are all up in knots because Patty is getting a fine arts degree and has attended a protest (actually several, but she sees no need to mention that). They seem to be terrified that Dev will follow in his older sister’s footsteps, but they’re also afraid of being overbearing. Dev mostly wants to be left alone and read about science, any science. J.T.’s family is comparatively complacent, but they’re constantly juggling kid activities and planning around food allergies and work schedules.

Erik notes that his new friend group is fairly loose, but Dev is definitely the leader. Caleb is the spark, and JT is the moral compass. He, Erik, is falling into the role of judge and arbiter, ironically. J.T.’s home is the closest to the Wattells’, at least in atmosphere. J.T. has a nine-year-old brother and a three-year-old sister, and is very patient and kind with them. He’s also the only one of the group with a girlfriend, and the only one who manages to shock Erik. One afternoon while waiting for JT to find his wallet and house key he spots a recent edition of The Joy of Sex on the bookshelf. Very quaint.

“It’s for when me and Amy take things to the next level,” J.T. says, utterly unembarrassed. “It only makes sense to be prepared and know our limits.”

Erik is appalled. J.T. won’t be sixteen until January and he’s planning his life like a young married. What on earth is wrong with this generation? What happened to whoring around? And since when do young people plan sex, outside an arranged marriage? True, J.T.’s mother is an ob/gyn, but in a sane world her son would be rebelling against her common sense and health consciousness. Erik conceals his horror as best he can and politely declines J.T.’s offer to loan the book.

Andre teases Erik about his observations of suburbia, but he’s pleased that his ward seems to be making connections. How much of it is playacting, he’s not sure, but he believes that Erik really is having fun, and is genuinely excited about spending the month of July at the rental cottage by Lake Ontario.

“It has three bedrooms, but I’ll be sleeping in the wall tent. Sarah and Michael are going to be having their friends in and out all month and I’ll have some privacy that way. Listen, Andre, I won’t be able to call, but if there’s an emergency there’s a phone in town. You can tell Redwing where we are, but don’t encourage them to visit. The last thing I want is to be reminded of them. I’ll send postcards, or whatever. Don’t worry about us.”

Andre doesn’t worry, and he does hear from Erik indirectly, in the form of pictures sent by Maddy and Marcus: Erik playing with Buddy; Erik and Michael paddling kayaks; Erik and his new friend, Dev, standing on a dock; Erik and Sarah on horseback, completely at ease; Erik splitting wood; Erik with a bucket of blackberries, the whole family by the campfire, and more. Andre is particularly struck by two photos. The first is an automatic on-ride shot of Erik, Sarah, and Michael on a roller coaster. The Wattell kids are screaming their lungs out, but Erik is calm, observant, taking it all in. Andre wonders how long it will be before he’s angling for a pilot’s license. The second picture is just Erik making coffee over an open fire, but it’s beautifully focussed and composed. This is one taken by Patty Banerjee when she brings Dev up for a few days. It’s such a nice photo that Maribella has it framed and puts it on the bookshelf with other family photos. Andre wonders what Erik will make of that when he visits in August.

***

Back in London, Philip Mortimer and Francis Blake are enjoying their summer as well. Having “inherited” their old pensions in lump sum form, the pair could live lives of modest leisure, but they keep busy. Thanks to David Honeychurch they have honestly earned but fraudulent qualifications, updated versions of their old degrees and honours. Blake is back to being a captain, but rather than work his way up the ranks of MI5, he works for them as a consultant. Mortimer is working for the Ministry of Defence, but is seriously thinking of switching his attention to alternative energy, perhaps getting another doctorate in geophysics. He’s only twenty-five, after all, plenty of time to switch to another specialization.

Like Erik, Blake and Mortimer are feeling their way around this new world, making new friends, taking up new interests. Blake buys a commuter bike and takes it work whenever possible. Mortimer buys a home computer and teaches himself Visual Basic in a ridiculously short period of time. They meet a few other same sex couples and tentatively explore the politics of the gay community. Blake isn’t exactly out at work, but he isn’t closeted either, and nothing is said about blackmail potential; how things have changed!

Aside from a few snide comments and some drunken harassment (and don’t those folks get the lesson of their lives), they go about their lives unmolested. Emboldened and energized, they hire a contractor to redo the kitchen of the Park Lane house and take the first three weeks in July off to explore Iceland. Mortimer is fascinated by the geothermal lakes and the curious folklore. Blake is thrilled by the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve and the rock formations of Djúpalón Beach. On the flight home Mortimer jokes that it’s been very restful to have a vacation that, for once, doesn’t include fighting an international crime gang or a mad scientist. This is the first trip they’ve taken together where they’ve been able to focus entirely on their surroundings and their relationship, and it causes a shift in their lives. Blake starts to think seriously about the campaign for same sex marriage. Mortimer is determined to explore new forms of environmentally friendly power.

Mortimer goes back to work starry-eyed and distracted, and begins putting out feelers to colleagues in the alternative energy field. Blake returns to a pile of cases that need his attention. It’s a lot of paperwork for someone who thinks of himself as a man of action. Whenever he comes across a file that requires field work he sets it aside, looking for one where he can get hands-on. It’s mid-afternoon before he gets to the bottom of the pile. The write-up is brief and it’s clear the investigator didn’t see much of a threat, but Blake feels the hair on the back of his neck prickle as he reads. He could wait until he gets home, but no. Make the call now.

“Hello, Philip. No, nothing’s wrong. I’m going to need your professional expertise. Yes, that’s right. I don’t know if it’s serious or not just yet, that’s what I need you for. You’re not going to believe this, but some gang of fools is trying to revive the Mega Wave research.”

Chapter Text

Caleb Moore had originally planned to have his 16th birthday party at home. Why not? They have a pool and a hot tub and a big screen TV, lots of room for twenty or thirty kids to dance and carry on. When he was little his parents would hire ponies and magicians for his birthdays, but he doesn’t expect anything like that this time. He’s nearly an adult after all, he doesn’t need a fuss, just enough pizzas to feed a crowd and the use of the house. Back in June when Erik mentioned his camping trip to Lake Ontario, Caleb had told him to be sure to return by August 5. He hasn’t mentioned the party to anyone since. Caleb doesn’t know exactly how or why it happens, but the cold war within his home turns hot on July 25, and instead of setting up the rec. room for a party the first week in August, he’s calling everyone to cancel. The excuse is a plumbing issue, some kind of disaster involving the pool and the bathroom pipes but don’t worry, we’ll reschedule before school starts. He tells his buddies in particular not to come over. The house is a shit show and his mother can’t handle company.

On the evening of August 5, Caleb is alone in the house. He smashes his father’s locked liquor cabinet with a decorative poker, grabs a full bottle of Remy Martin and heads out in the general direction of Hoyt Lake on foot. He’s on his way to Dev’s taking healthy slugs of cognac every few steps, but halfway to the Banerjee house he starts to feel a little weird. Maybe he should take a break, and doesn’t Erik live close by? Oh, yeah, one block over. Caleb wonders if the Wattells are back or if they decided to stay another few weeks. He wonders if Sarah would like to try some Remy Martin. Fired up on the strength of that brilliant idea, he lurches toward the white Tudor, noting that there is definitely a car in the driveway, even if it is pretty blurry. For some reason he can’t find the doorbell and has to yell and yell before Marcus Wattell opens the door.

What follows next is confiscation, questioning, coffee, and crying. Maddy calls the Moore home and leaves a message that Caleb is planning to spend the night, please don’t worry or call. Erik and Marcus half-carry Caleb to the elevator and stretch him out on an inflatable mattress in Erik’s room.

“I’m sorry, Marcus. I had a feeling that things were bad with Caleb but didn’t expect anything like this,” says Erik as he throws a spare blanket over the prone and snoring boy.

“Don’t worry about it. Maybe put down some dark towels though. Your buddy here doesn’t strike me as a seasoned drinker.”

 

Caleb ends up staying in the Wattell guest room for a week. At first both Bob and Candice Moore call furiously and repeatedly, but Maddy tells them flatly to leave it alone until they've sorted something out between themselves. Someone from the house sends over a bag of clothes via taxi. On August 11, the Friday after his real birthday, Caleb gets his pizza and cake, and although there are only a dozen guests, they have a good time. The next day Candice Moore swings by in her little Mercedes convertible to take Caleb to the downtown condo where they will live while the lawyers and arbiters sort out custody and support issues. Caleb apologizes to the family for the twentieth time and reluctantly leaves with his mother.

***

After putting up with two teenage boys in their house for a week, you’d think Marcus and Maddy would be glad to get rid of them both, but it’s with great reluctance that they put Erik on a bus to Syracuse on the 14h. The plan is for Erik to meet with William Hunter-Adams, the Redwing tech chief, tour the research plant, and spend the night in a hotel before flying to New York (commercial this time) to visit Andre and Maribella for a few days. Maddy checks and double checks the reservation. Marcus gives Erik three safety talks and insists on speaking to the bus driver personally.

Of course Erik makes the trip safely and has no trouble taking a cab to the Brooklyn house. It’s nearly seven p.m. by the time he touches down and he’s actually on his mobile phone when Andre opens the door.

“I’m here, Maddy. Everything went fine, just some traffic. Andre is here.” He holds the phone up.

“Hello, Maddy!” Andre calls, taking Erik’s duffle and ushering him into the house.

“Okay. Yes. Yes. I will. Okay. I miss you too. Bye” He hands the phone to Andre and goes to greet Maribella and the baby.

Andre reviews the schedule with Maddy and assures her, again, that Erik is there with all parts accounted for. He tosses the duffle into the spare room and joins his family in the kitchen where Erik is greeting Maribella. He reaches into his pockets and pulls out souvenirs of his trip to the Redwing lab. They look like oversized Necco wafers, but light up when gently squeezed. They’re magnetized for quick placement and come in different colors for coding in low light conditions. He’s brought a dozen from the lab for Andre and Maribella to play with.

“The only problem is that they last five hours at best, but they’re working on that.”

Maribella has a lot of questions, so Andre lets her guide the conversation while he observes. He’s pleased to see his ward looking so healthy and… something else. It takes him a minute but he realizes that Erik's new form is starting to look lived in. He has callouses on his hands, an uneven tan, a nearly-healed scratch on his arm and a few marks from bug bites. He’s also much livelier than Andre has ever seen him, and more at ease. As Andre puts Miranda in her high chair, Erik hands him her sippy cup without being asked. He helps set the table like an old hand and even takes a turn feeding the baby to give Andre and Maribella a chance to eat while the meatloaf is still hot.

It seems like the visit to the lab was a great success, at least for reforging a connection. Hunter-Adams is a bit like Michael, if Michael had been raised by birds of prey, but he was excited about showing off some of the most interesting projects. Erick won’t get specific about most of them, having been sworn to trade secrecy.

“I came within an inch of getting Hunter-Adams to let me try an experimental jetpack, but a security guard grabbed me and literally lifted me out of the harness,” Erik says, almost giggling. “It took William forever to figure out why it was even a problem.”

“He sounds completely insane, like the rest of that Redwing crowd.”

“Oh, completely, but very creative. Goes hand in hand, perhaps. I let him know how much high tech would be valued in Redwing’s future, so he’ll feel free to let fly. I expect great things.”

Ah, of course. Attempting to steer the company even now. Maribella wants to know more about his summer, so Erik tells her all about the camping trip, and Caleb, and what Michael and Sarah are up to. He wants to be back in Buffalo by the 19th to say goodbye to them before they go back to school. Sarah is contemplating a gap year. Michael has new insights into his thesis which Erik can’t begin to explain. Maddy is in the middle of her annual canning frenzy. Marcus has lost ten pounds since he and Erik started working out together.

“And I’ve gained eight.” Erik modestly doesn’t point out that he’s also gained a few inches and is now perhaps a hair taller than Andre’s 5’ 8”. He’s still thin, but looks much stronger and straighter than the little scarecrow Andre met in Las Angeles. Andre is now pretty sure that Erik’s physical age was closer to 14 than 15 when he came out of the pod, but has no problem with the boy skipping a grade, so to speak. With a start Andre realizes that it’s been eighteen months to the day since Old Ivan first summoned him to discuss the rejuvenation project. He tries to mentally add a beard and sixty years to the boy’s face and finds he can’t. He tries to imagine the old man sitting cross-legged on the floor with his daughter. Equally impossible. The closest resemblance comes when Maribella takes Miranda to her room and Erik lowers his voice to ask an odd personal favor.

It’s not a secret, for a change. When their guest is safely tucked away, Andre asks his wife if she wants to go to Vermont after Christmas. Michael Shaw’s guest house is nearly finished and he could use some friendly paying guests for the shakedown cruise. Erik intends to go after spending Christmas with the Wattells and wonders if they’d like to join him. Of course, they’d have privacy, and the Wattells would be happier if he had more adults around.

Maribella is actually relieved. “So that’s what he’s been holding back all evening. I thought he wanted to leave Maddy and Marcus or something else stupid. Interesting.”

“So you knew something was up.”

“He’s not all that hard to read. He kept looking at his picture on the shelf but didn’t say anything, so I assumed he was going to disappoint us, but okay. I’m glad he’s decided to lean in to the whole ‘being a human with a family’ thing. New Year’s Eve in Vermont. It might be fun.”

“So I’ll see if I can get the time off?”

“Sure. I bet they’ll be pleased that you’re spending time with your fancy client.”

“He’s more than that, though.”

“To me too. He wouldn’t be in this house otherwise.”

***

Erik gets to be off-leash a little more this trip. There’s no Redwing minder when Andre takes the Wednesday off to confer with his client, that is to say, to give him advice while they get school clothes. Erik hasn’t been spending much of his princely allowance, most of his purchases to date (bike, clothes, hiking boots) being deemed necessities covered by the Ostrovsky fund. Andre doesn’t examine the statements that sharply but he can see Erik is mostly buying books, movies, music, and the occasional meal out, like any teenager. So far the biggest expense has been four tickets to a Queensrÿche concert, of all things. Apparently the guys - J.T. in particular - really wanted to go, and they all paid him back anyway.

“So what did you think?”

“Mmm. Fun for a while. Definitely educational.”

“But the music?”

Erik shakes his head. “J.T.’s taste is abysmal. Except for Dream Theatre. And Iron Maiden, of course.”

“The classics.”

Andre had expected his ward to spread out a bit with clothes shopping. Old Ivan favored sharp double-breasted suits made for him in London, and from his discreetly gathered collection of old clippings, Andre has learned that The Previous Incarnation was a bit of a dandy as well.

Disappointingly, Erik asks to go to a few mid-range chain stores. He picks out some jeans, one pair of dress pants, plain tees and button downs, everything in black, white and grey with room to grow. The only diversion for Andre is when Erik spends a long time in the Nordstrom men’s grooming section. The elegant young clerk is bored and only too happy to share his skin care and shaving expertise; he even throws a few cologne samples in with the small fortune of tubes and bottles and makes a point of handing his card to Erik who is… flirting? Flirting back? The clerk can’t be more than twenty, but still. He’s much too young. And also much too old. Andre gives his head a shake. None of this is really his business, but he wonders if his warning about not falling for Sarah was wildly misplaced.

Over lunch Andre decides that everything pertaining to his ward is his business, not that he’s about to just ask. They talk about Vermont, the concert, the cabin, all the summer adventure pictures.

“I see you framed the one taken by Patty Banerjee. Now there’s a girl.”

This Patty is the kind of woman who would, in Erik’s words, give you an alibi, not because she likes you, but because she hates the cops. Cross her and she’ll set your clothes on fire. Apparently these are good things.

“So you like her?”

Erik pulls up short. “Andre, please. Patty is my friend’s older sister, and she wouldn’t give me a second look. She just happens to have qualities that I admire in a woman.”

Andre is relieved, but only a little. “You must have thought of this. I mean. Um. I mean, your social life will change, and, um.”

“I know where you’re going with this but I am not going to help you.”

“Good lord, you are impossible. Fine. You’re physically young and healthy… hormones. I mean, there is no age appropriate situation here.”

Erik is laughing silently and annoyingly, the smug little bastard. Andre wonders if he enjoyed embarrassing his predecessor, the legendary Delaney, the same way. Fine.

“I will talk about safe sex, in detail, if you don’t cut it out.”

Erik raises his hands in mock surrender and checks to see that nobody is within hearing range. “Okay, Andre, fair enough. Nobody is more aware of the strangeness than I am, believe me. Yesterday I found myself briefly mesmerized by a fellow passenger’s décolletage, and she was a sweet young thing in her forties.”

“You can’t…”

“I. Know. That. There is a pressing need to preserve appearances, especially now. Secondary school is a very conservative environment. I’m going to have to hide many aspects of myself for a few years.”

Aspects, huh? Andre decides to go for it. “The young guy at Nordstrom…”

“Brian?” Erik puts a bit of theatrical purr into his voice, but there’s a challenge there too.

“Look, you can tell me to go to hell, but it is literally my place to worry about you as your lawyer, and your guardian, and your friend. You’ve been in your Redwing tower for a long time now, and the world can be a brutal place. Mari and I have lost friends, you know? One of my professors wasted away in my final year and it was horrible. And some really shitty people thought he deserved it. Things can be really difficult for someone who, well, doesn’t fall into the standard model.”

Erik waves off his concern. “I know quite a bit about this, Andre. You forget that in my time not falling into the ‘standard model’ could land you in a work camp, or a mental institution, or, frankly, a shallow grave, depending on where you were. To answer your very obvious unasked question, I like who I like. Sometimes that means someone like Patty. Sometimes that means someone like Brian. It’s very individual, and it doesn’t mean I’m careless, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I didn’t think that!”

Erik rolls his eyes. “Fine. Good talk. Don’t worry about me getting into trouble. Or getting someone else in trouble. That’s not the plan.” He could add to Andre’s mortification by mentioning an intense physical attraction to Michael Wattell that manifested briefly over the summer, but decides to keep that in reserve in case he really wants to see his guardian sweat.

***

It has taken some negotiation on Andre’s part, but Erik is permitted to explore the city on his own on Thursday, providing he calls either Redwing or Andre once an hour. He accompanies Andre all the way to Sullivan and Cromwell, then heads north to Soho. It’s good to be anonymous in the city with money in his pocket. He treats himself to an overpriced cappuccino and makes his first call. He sets out on foot, exploring whatever looks interesting; book stores, record stores, thrift shops, antiques, art galleries, bakeries. Erik makes a second call to Redwing while watching some jugglers in Washington Square Park. After about ten minutes, he makes his way to the Village, ducks into the first “adult entertainment” store he sees, and waits just inside the door.

Before the owner can shoo him away Kate Liu barrels through the door and instantly realizes she’s fallen into a trap.

“You little smartass.”

“I’ve been catching your reflection in windows for about an hour now. If you guys are going to tail me, you should try disguises. Maybe carry a big shrub.”

Liu sighs in disgust and drags Erik out of the shop by his sleeve. “I’m just doing my job here.”

“Great. You can help me carry my bags. You owe me lunch anyway.”

Kate calls HQ to tell them she’s been clocked, so don’t expect any more calls from “the brat.” She and Erik wander around the Village for the rest of the afternoon, taking their time. Liu grudgingly admits that Erik is decent company when he isn’t inflicting his shenanigans on her. He tells her about Michael’s guest house, even suggesting that she make a trip up north herself. She helps him pick out a flight jacket at the army surplus store and sees him back to Andre’s office.

“Can I trust you to meet Torres like a good boy?”

“Sure. Next time I’m in town we’ll hang out again. It’s been real.”

Liu gives him a swat and watches him enter the building where Torres is waiting. Back to Brooklyn they go, both tired from the day. There’s been a change of plan, says Andre. Maribella is taking the baby to see her auntie and cousin for the evening, so they’ll be batching it. The house is empty when they get home with bags of takeout from a soul food restaurant. They shut the blinds, turn on some music and eat out of the containers at the kitchen counter.

When they’re both full of food and the remains have been stowed away, Andre pours two glasses of wine.

“Underage drinking, Andre? What’s the occasion?”

“It’s medicinal. I had some news today that you’re not going to like. Try not to lose your temper until I finish, okay?”

Erik takes a sip of wine. “I’ll try.”

“So as you know, Cooper and Cooper sends me regular updates on everything your old friends in England are up to.”

“Oh, great.”

“This is very likely nothing, but, abundance of caution and all that, you deserve to know. They’ve started looking into something that could be tangentially related to your past. It seems that some group of nutjobs based in London has started something called The Order of the Golden Mu.” Andre stops. Erik’s face has gone completely blank.

“The leader is someone called Gideon Fox-Devereux. He calls himself Father Gideon but he’s not really a priest or a minister or anything official. He’s got a group of about forty followers who consider him The First Septimus, which doesn’t make a lick of sense and-”

Andre had worried that Erik would explode. This is much worse. The boy starts shaking his head in denial. “No,” he whispers. “No, no, no. I can’t. No. No. No. No. No.”

“Hey, hey now. This isn’t that big a deal. These lunatics don’t even know you exist.”

Erik doesn’t seem to have heard him.

“Blake and Mortimer know I exist! I can’t do this, Andre! Not again. I will shoot myself in the head before I let another group of lunatics use me as a guinea pig.” He’s angry, which Andre had expected, but worse, he’s terrified, shaking as if he’s been in an accident. Andre sets his wine down and wraps his arms around the boy. It’s like holding a tailor’s dummy. He waits and waits and eventually Erik relaxes, and starts breathing almost normally, or perhaps he just gives up. Andre doesn’t let go and Erik doesn’t try to escape.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize it would hit you like this.”

“You couldn’t. Nobody could.” Erik straightens himself up and rubs his face, removing any evidence of tears, if there were any. “I should be apologizing to you.”

“No you shouldn’t. Anything that scares you that much has to be pretty fucking horrible.”

Erik looks past him. “I sometimes forget how much of the past has been forgotten, or has passed into legend. Hell, most of what happened has been written off as fraud, mass hysteria, great powers meddling with each other.”

Erik drinks his wine, not gulping, not quite, and explains the bare bones of his history with the waves and the madmen who used them, from having his mind wiped in Egypt (some strange head injury) to his horrible encounters with Septimus, Evangeley, and the alien presences, referring to the latter only as “strange forces.” No point in blowing all of his guardian’s mind at once. The key is to make Andre understand how dangerous any use of the Mega Wave is, personally and to the world at large.

“I’m probably the only person living who has experienced this first hand, and it is impossible to describe sufficiently. I can tell you that when a person’s mind is being torn apart, there comes a moment of extreme clarity. You realize that it cannot possibly get any worse, because if it does you will surely die, and you are ready to die. But then, you see, it gets worse, and you don’t die. It just doesn’t stop.”

Erik seems to be retreating back into his own head, but Andre gives him a gentle nudge. “Stay with me, okay? These Golden Mu guys are clowns, and I don’t think they know the first thing about science, but we’ll take them seriously as a threat. We’ll talk to Redwing. We’ll talk to Maddy, and Marcus, and Lieutenant Clark. We’ll talk to the F.B.I. if you like. You’re not alone here.”

“You can’t protect me from the world. Not really. That’s not a realistic expectation.”

“I can try. And so can Redwing. It’s about time they did something besides follow you around.”

Chapter Text

The only way to explain this is to go backwards. Andre and Erik concoct a plausible story and test it first with Maribella. As the party most concerned, Erik does the talking; besides, as he and Andre had discussed, he’s by far the more practiced liar and Maribella knows all of her husband’s tells.

The key is sticking close to the truth, and keeping it simple. In short, choppy statements Erik explains that his dad was threatened by crazy followers of a mad scientist who died back in the 50s. There were weird letters and sometimes people tried to get to the office or stop him in the street. He knows this from cryptic warnings he’s heard over the years. Ivan was so worried he had detectives in England investigate anyone even remotely connected with this group and report back. When Erik was born, he became paranoid about kidnappers and had the boy raised anonymously.

“Why were these people after your father?”

Erik looks at Andre, as this is supposed to be where his knowledge leaves off.

“Ivan never mentioned the detectives when we talked, and I can’t find anything in the old reports. Maybe he would have if we’d had more time to plan, but he was mostly concerned with making sure Erik had a designated guardian and sorting out the estate. First I knew of it was when they contacted me, back in March.”

“So you asked them to keep investigating?”

“I asked him to,” Erik says. “My dad was super weird about kidnapping and secrecy, but he wasn’t stupid. I thought maybe he had a good reason.”

“And then Andre told you about this new group of crazy people yesterday evening and you stayed up all night worrying about it.”

Erik looks at the table. “Not all night.”

Maribella gives Erik’s hand a firm squeeze. “I’m sorry kiddo. You don’t need this in your life. Andre will sic your sharks on them, right?” She looks at Andre, “Maddy and Marcus will be thrilled to hear about this.”

“Yes, you’re right. And we should have a backup plan in case I have to leave.”

“Leave? What do you mean?”

“Would you want kidnapping bait in your house?”

“That is the craziest thing I’ve heard out of your mouth.”

Erik looks from her to Andre, and back. “I wouldn’t blame them. They have their own kids to worry about and it’s a lot to ask. Maybe the idea of living without tight security was unrealistic from the start.”

“Put that idea out of your head. Honestly! What a thing to worry about. Besides, these people are way over in England and they sound loony tunes to me. I doubt they could organize a potluck.”

Before Maribella leaves with the baby she tells Erik to remember they still have the whole weekend to enjoy “after your boring meeting” and that he should pick out a movie or a strip club, which actually gets a smile out of him, although not a very good one.

***

The original plan had been for Erik to swing by on his own, say hello to the Redwing team, and move on to more enjoyable things. It was supposed to be a quick bit of diplomacy, but now they both need to go in and talk to Malcolm Browning, the security division head, and Erik is tense to the point of feeling ill. Andre contacts Redwing, initiating a series of calls and before he’s finished his second cup of coffee he gets word that not only does Browning agree to a meeting, he will pick them up in person on his way to the office.

Having met two of the top Redwing executives and heard a detailed description of a third, Andre amuses himself making mental bets on how this new one will be weird, and thus is slightly disappointed when Browning shows up in a white vintage Lincoln Continental instead of an actual tank.

“There he is,” Erik says. “By the way, he’s Kiwi, not Australian. You don’t want to confuse the two.”

Browning is resplendent in an orange and blue Hawaiian shirt beneath a white suit that almost conceals his shoulder holster.

“Thought I’d put on the dog to meet Ivan’s boy,” he says, extending a hand the size of a bear paw and ushering them into the car. “Spread out there in the back, young Erik. I want to chat with Mr. Torres a bit.”

Browning mostly listens. As Andre tells the story, it sounds weak to his own ears, but Browning is surprisingly receptive.

“Mr. O. Was always on guard against mysterious Brits. It would have been easy to chalk up to paranoia in old age, but I saw it myself. People taking pictures, making inquiries. Some of it was definitely British intelligence.”

“What would they want?”

“Checking up on a close ally’s supplier. Or maybe checking up on Mr. O. Good luck with that.”

“Ivan Ostrovsky worked with the CIA. It’s not like the British government would find out anything they didn’t know.”

“The Company would see that they didn’t,” Browning says, touching his nose significantly.

Browning is particularly intrigued - and angered - by the cult aspect of The Golden Mu. After retiring from the New Zealand Army and before joining Redwing he’d done all kinds of independent work, including scooping up a few over privileged children from gurus and charismatics. Cults are a personal interest, particularly the kind that stockpile weapons or have nation-building ambitions. To Andre’s surprise, he’s also familiar with the Mega Wave technology, although only from a historical perspective.

“It’s my understanding that the technology has been long lost, and everyone who tried to wield it long dead. There have been rumors that the Soviets were trying to revive it, and the Chinese, but nothing concrete. North Korea, too. There’s something about that tech that attracts madmen and eats them. I wonder what old Ivan’s interest was. If he’d been trying to use it himself he would have hired physicists, not Cooper and Cooper. Not his style anyway.”

“It sounds like he was more concerned with the cult than the science. Maybe there was a threat to Erik?” Andre says. “Whatever it was, he kept it to himself. Even Erik has no idea.”

“Well, naturally. No point in scaring the kid, especially with him being raised far away from any danger. Or maybe that’s why he was being raised in secret. I’ll confab with the other heads. We’ll have Cooper and Cooper loop me in and my group will supplement their investigation as if you and Erik were clients, start from scratch. Chances are we’re all jumping at shadows.”

Browning deliberately switches the talk to lighter topics, asking Erik about sports and school and his visit (“Heard you made our security team look the fool. Good on you.”) He invites Andre to bring Erik and his family to his farm in Melville on Long Island. He and his wife have a whole menagerie, including some horses and a pony for the grandkids.

“Ever ridden a draft horse, Erik? Thrilling!”

“Nothing taller than fifteen hands, but I do ride a little. Of course, I’m only here for a few more days.”

“Maybe Sunday then.”

“I’ll ask Maribella,” Andre sighs. A city boy to the core, he knows he’s about to be roped into a hay fever nightmare. Maybe Miranda will enjoy it, though.

When they get to Redwing, Huttering and Hassan are waiting in a secure, soundproof meeting room, and aside from brief handshakes there are no pleasantries. Doris suggests that Erik wait outside with a guard, but Browning insists that the boy has a right to know what’s going on. They give Andre ten minutes to explain the situation and to his relief, nobody tries to downplay the danger; they agree that if Ivan thought it was a problem, it was a problem. Assiz agrees to whatever budget Browning thinks he will need, providing he keeps it focussed and doesn’t attract the attention of any official agencies. Doris will order a thorough security review as everything within the company’s operations is her area.

“Malcolm, I assume you’ll want to discuss this with William,” says Doris. Andre notes that her brooch is a golden tank with ruby lights this time. “He might have some insight on this strange technology and who might be working on it, although frankly it sounds more like magic than science. I can’t imagine him attempting anything remotely like it.”

“I’ll have a chat,” Browning replies. “And if I thought William was making his own telecephaloscope, I’d croak him myself to save time.” It gets a laugh, but Andre is absolutely certain that he would.

There isn’t much more to say, although Andre reiterates that he will fax Cooper and Cooper immediately about keeping Browning in the loop. Erik says he doesn’t mind waiting at the office while Andre works. He’ll get a book or something.

“That sounds awfully dull,” Doris counters. “Why don’t I free up a bodyguard to take you to Coney Island? Mr. Torres here can work in peace and we’ll send you back in time for dinner.”

Sure, why not? Mr. Braun draws the short straw and arrives within five minutes, looking as unhappy as he can as a professional. They say goodbye to the Redwing execs, and go their separate ways.

***

With Browning involved, Erik’s security is a minor concern for Doris and Assiz, who spend most of their weekly get-together talking about a their bid for a long-term contract with the Department of Defense. It will involve providing both tech and training and if they’re successful it means a hiring blitz and perhaps new office space in D.C., not to mention finding more instructors to replace the ones dedicated to this project. It’a prestige job, dear to Assiz’s vision of making Redwing more than a “glorified arms dealer” on the international stage. Doris has to admit that Assiz has outdone himself with a 1990 Veuve Cliquot something or other with fresh potato chips and crab cakes. He’s celebrating a bit prematurely, but she doesn’t blame him. They are so very, very close, so close that Doris doesn’t see any harm in teasing him a little.

“What are the odds that dear Malcolm will do something silly in the near future?” she asks, after her second glass.

“With this cult business? I’m not worried. His part in the negotiations is done, and even if he goes rogue, Browning knows how to bury the bodies. Not my circus, not my monkeys. Chances of it amounting to anything are small anyway. I notice that you didn’t even push Torres on moving the kid.”

Doris shrugs. “We don’t need the distraction. Besides, living in that backwater clearly agrees with him. Even you have to admit that.”

“I suppose. It’s the first time I’ve noticed a resemblance to his father at any rate. Still glad he’s not my monkey. Let Malcolm have him.”

***

Andre spends a good part of his day drafting his letter in between putting out small fires. He wants to make absolutely sure that Cooper and Cooper shares with Redwing everything they discover about the The Golden Mu cult and the Mega Wave technology, and absolutely nothing else. Of course, he can’t just say that, but by emphasizing the narrowness of their scope and the need to avoid involving government agencies at any cost, he hopes he’s threaded the needle. He has plenty of work to do on other cases as well. Since he became the “Ostrovsky babysitter,” as a few jealous colleagues put it, he’s been granted more responsibility and profile with other clients. He’s still decades away from tailoring his work load, however, so it’s quite late when he gets home and Erik and Maribella are already there.

Erik had actually let himself in with the spare key hours before Maribella arrived. Coney Island was okay, but after riding the cyclone and the wonder wheel a few times there wasn’t much more that Erik wanted to do. He and Braun had wandered around the boardwalk, but he hadn’t felt the need to spend the whole day.

“You and Braun get along?”

“I didn’t torture him if that’s what you mean; didn’t even harass him about not coming on the rides, so extra credit for me.”

In fact, Braun had been very patient and had spoken to Erik like an adult on the advice of his girlfriend, who teaches high school. He’d unbent to the point of buying flowers for that girlfriend while Erik picked out bread and a cheesecake for the family dinner. Maribella and Andre use the bread to make pressed sandwiches with leftover pork roast, ham, cheese, and pickles for everyone except Erik, who holds the pickles no matter how authentically Cuban they are.

As Andre had supposed, Maribella is enthusiastic about visiting the farm. She points out that they can always plead allergies or late church if it turns out to be weird.

“If nothing else it will be interesting, and we should do something different for Erik’s last day in town.”

“Great. The ‘yes and’ approach to decision making. I’ll remind you of that the next time we get invited to some horrible work party.”

“Yes, and?” Erik asks.

“It’s a guideline for improv acting. If your scene partner says or does something weird, just go with it, keep it going. I guess it could apply to life as well. Up to a point.”

“The legal and safe point,” Maribella adds.

“So limiting.” He’s joking, but Andre can tell the idea has taken root. Speaking of roots…

“I spoke to Maddy and Marcus by the way. As far as they’re concerned, nothing has changed.”

Erik’s expression is unreadable. He stops eating for a second, then nods. “Good.” And that is that.

***

The rest of the weekend goes quickly, as weekends at the end of summer holiday usually do. On Saturday they spend time in the garden, which is already much improved, and see City of Lost Children; Andre’s pick, a thankyou for agreeing to the farm visit. Maribella surprises Erik with an unusual gift made by a friend of hers, a leather bracelet with a square silver ‘evil eye’ clasp.

“I realize this is a little out there for you, but it’s all black and white and very manly. You can hide it under your sleeve.”

“I love it. Thank you.” He puts it on and keeps it on for the rest of the visit.

On Sunday they pack up the car, mostly with diapers and snacks for Miranda, plus two bakery quiche for lunch. Despite being less than an hour from Brooklyn by car, Melville has a small town feel, if you can ignore everything around it. Andre drives while Maribella navigates until they come to a tree-lined side road, then a long, unpaved driveway to a gate with a huge metal sign: Haumako.

“Notice the security cameras,” says Erik. Andre hadn’t noticed the cameras, but now he realizes why they were instructed to wait in the car by the gate. After a moment the steel gate slowly swings wide to let them in. At the end of the lane they see Malcolm waiting near a hangar-like barn.

“Park in here or you’ll end up with a turkey on your hood, or worse, a goat.”

Browning leads them into his massive ranch house to meet his wife. Kelly is about half the size of her husband. The coiled salt-and-pepper braid brings her height to above five feet, but not by much. She has a bouncy, hummingbird energy that charms Maribella immediately. She makes a fuss over Miranda, who is the same age as her youngest grandson, and shows them around the massive garden with its fruit trees, greenhouse, and painted beehives that look like jewel boxes. Malcolm takes over the tour when they get the ranch part, introducing them to the horses and their companions, the pygmy goats, the three alpacas, the chickens, and the surprisingly active Bourbon Red turkeys. The turkeys are the only animals that end up on the table, he explains, but they do get pork and beef from their neighbors.

“What does haumako mean?” Andre wants to know.

“It’s Maori for oasis. We bought this property fourteen years ago-“

“Just after you started with Redwing,” notes Kelly.

“Right. It was run down then but we saw the potential. Now they’ll have to carry me out feet first.”

After lunch they visit the horses again. Malcolm saddles up his grey Percheron, a massive, gentle beast, and carries a giggling Miranda in front of him for a dignified walk around the paddock. Under Kelly’s watchful eye, Erik outfits Hero, the chestnut Morgan mare and gives Maribella her first (and last) riding lesson. He shows her how to earn the horse’s trust and mount, then leads her around the perimeter slowly as Andre watches with every muscle in his body in full clench.

“They’re perfectly safe,” Kelly says. “Malcolm knows what he’s doing, and so does Erik. I wonder where he learnt.”

Browning swings Miranda down to Andre’s waiting arms and takes his horse back to the barn. After a few turns Maribella has had enough so Erik brings them back and helps her dismount.

“Why don’t you give her a try, Erik?”

“I’d love to. Thanks Mr. Browning.” He’s on the horse in an instant and it’s obvious, even to Andre, that he is very much at home in the saddle. At Kelly’s urging he speeds to a trot.

“Kid has a good seat,” Malcolm says. “Did Ivan teach him?”

“Ivan rode horses? That doesn’t match up with the man I knew at all.”

“He was a fine rider. Fine fighter, too. I knew him before he started Redwing, you know.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Oh, yes. Not well, but we were both contractors for The Company if you catch my drift. He brought me in when he knew he was going to make a go of it. Best decision I ever made, at least financially. By the way, that bracelet Erik has…”

“My wife gave it to him.”

“Ah, good.” Malcolm lowers his voice. “Ivan had a habit of taking trophies. I thought it might be something he picked up in Central America - bad juju for a young fella.”

“It’s meant to be protective. Maribella and I think a great deal of Erik.”

“I’m glad he has you, and those people up north. Don’t get me wrong, I had all sorts of respect for Ivan, but a daddy he was not. Made me look like a pussycat.”

The Brownings send them home with a bag of peaches and a jar of this year’s strawberry jam. Andre jokes that when Erik is in town the food in the house doubles.Malcolm escorts them back to the barn to let them out, making a point of shaking each by the hand again, Erik in particular.

“Don’t worry about these mad idiots across the pond, young man. Save your worry for school and sports and girls. We’ll take care of the rest.”

“I know you will, Mr. Browning, and I feel much safer. Thanks again.”

***

The next morning Andre takes Erik to the airport himself before anyone else is awake. It would be easy enough to put him in a cab, but they haven’t had much time to talk during this visit and Andre’s car is as secure as any other venue.

To his relief, Erik wasn’t just blowing smoke when he told Browning he felt safer. He has faith in his own people and besides, Malcolm hates a cult with a fiery heat. If anyone from the Golden Mu gets within reach he’ll wring their necks.

“Did you hire anyone who isn’t bonkers?”

Erik smirks right in his face. “Not for the really important jobs, Andre. Everyone I’ve burdened with my trust has been a wildly ambitious outsider with a reckless streak and a thirst for adventure, however well he or she may hide it.”

“Yeah? Except me, of course.”

“Sure. Keep telling yourself that. Just remember that you can get off this train any time and have yet to do so.”

“Because we’re having so much fun! You have to admit that life is pretty sweet right now.”

“It is. You know, I’ve known Malcolm for decades and he never invited Ivan to that farm.”

“What an amazing place! How come you never told me you could ride?”

“There are a lot of things I stopped doing in my old age. Hell, I haven’t played chess in years and years.”

“Lost your touch?”

“Can’t find anyone good enough, not on this continent, anyway.”

“Whoa. Okay, Bobby Fischer! Maybe you can take up another difficult game, become grand master or whatever it’s called for that.”

“Maybe I will!”

Since Erik is in such a good mood Andre pokes at something he’s been wondering about for months. After all, they’ve talked about sex, how hard can it be to talk about love? He mentions Maribella’s gift and Erik assures him that he really does like it. It’s what the kids consider cool these days, and besides, being from “Aunt Mari” makes it special.

“So you’re really fine with all this? Because I have to say that if people were suddenly treating me completely differently I’d be weirded out all the time. You said Malcolm never invited you to visit while you were Ivan.”

“I was his employer.”

“And now you’re his employer’s son, but he still slapped you on the back. And Mari hugs you all the time, and I imagine Marcus and Maddy do too.”

“Sure. And Sarah and Michael. And my age appropriate friends punch me to say hello. I’m not entirely unfamiliar with human contact, Andre. I had friends here and there. There were a few lovers over the years.”

“That is such an old-fashioned word. Seriously, don’t say that again. What I mean is, people are familiar with you now like you’re just a regular kid. You have to listen to grownups and put up with a bedtime and people thinking you’re a nice boy. They consider you one of their own now. There are worse fates, I realize that, but still.”

“Are you worried that I’m going to, what, run guns out of the school library? I told you, Andre, this is a fresh start. By the time I’m legally an adult I'm going to look so good on paper I could be on the Supreme Court. Stop fretting already.”

“Fabulous. That’s nice to hear, but that’s not at all what I’m getting at. I don’t think you’d ever turn - or return I guess - to a criminal life because among other reasons it’s just too difficult and unprofitable compared to business. It’s the psychological aspect, coping with the weirdness, alienation, imposter syndrome, all that stuff.”

Erik is silent for a long time. He thinks about all the strange things he’s been through in his long life. This isn’t even the first time he’s inhabited a ‘new’ body and Andre is worried that he won’t be able to handle having the expectations of a decent family. They’re nearly at the airport when inspiration strikes.

“Listen, Andre, there’s this weird science fiction show that Michael has made me watch with him a few times.”

“Um, okay?

“One of the characters belongs to this symbiotic race of little slug creatures that live inside human-type bodies, going through several in their lifetimes. When they join they become a whole new person, with the slug retaining the memories of previous lives and hosts. So this beautiful young woman is called “old man” by her friend because she was an old man when they met.”

“Got it. And this applies to you.”

“Yes, because I have all my memories of my previous life. Lives, really. I’m still me, but I’m also Erik.”

“You haven’t even been Erik for a year, though. At least you had years to grow into Ivan, and even that was a disguise.”

“Not a disguise, more like a facet. And I came out of that glass tube a new person.”

“Hmmm.”

“Would you even be asking me this kind of thing if I were still Ivan?”

Andre considers. “No, but I wouldn’t have to.”

“And you were afraid of me then.”

“Oh, come on. Well, Maybe a little. You had such bushy white eyebrows.”

Erik laughs. “I have to grow those all over again. Look, Andre, what can I do? Every time I try to get high-handed with someone I remember what I look like and feel like an idiot. Besides, 75 years is a long time for a human being, but it’s not enough time to learn everything, not by a long shot. I find it’s not so awful having people like me, even if it’s under false pretenses. It can’t be any other way, so I’ll learn to live with it. Maybe you should do the same.”

They arrive at the departure gate and Andre haul’s Erik’s duffle out of the back seat.

‘Got your ticket?

“Good lord, yes. And my wallet, and my snack. Thank you!”

Andre grabs his ward in a bear hug, swinging him around over muffled protests.

“Get used to it, kid!”

“You are the worst nag. I’ll call you when I get in.”

“Do so! Don’t talk to strangers! Drink lots of water.”

Erik flips him the bird, turns it into a wave, and runs into the airport.

Chapter Text

As of September 1995 televangelist, author, accused rapist, and convicted fraudster Jim Bakker has been out of jail for nine months. His empire is in tatters, his marriage is over, and he owes the IRS $6 million. The long read in Vanity Fair is a classic tale of hubris, excess, hypocrisy, and chickens coming home to roost, but the only part that registers with Gideon Fox-Devereux is the excess. While preaching the love of Jesus, Bakker acquired a 55-foot yacht, a vintage Rolls Royce, and homes in California, Florida, and Tennessee. His tiny wife, Tammy Faye, wore her weight in gold and diamonds. Fox-Devereux reads these details and all he can think is, “I deserve that, all of it, and more.”

At the very least, he deserves a more attractive setting. When the family first acquired the Weybridge house in 1911, it was comfortable, modern and snug, close enough to town to be convenient but not in the thick of things. It had originally been used as a pied-à-terre, a place for a young couple or a small family to camp with one or two servants at most. In the 1950s Gideon’s grandfather hired plumbers to update the works. Since then it’s been nearly untouched. Gideon inherited the house from his paternal grandfather when he turned 21. For a while he made a little money using it as a party house, but now it’s the only assured roof over his head and the national headquarters of the Order of the Golden Mu.

The first floor has been cleared out except for his “pastoral" throne and pulpit, and several salvaged pews and benches. He and dear Julia - mostly Julia, really - have done wonders with paint and fabric. The purple plush draperies are synthetic and held together with rough basting stitches, but nobody notices when the room is lit by candles, as long as they don’t use too many. The kitchen boasts a huge coffee urn and dozens of mugs for the pre-service fellowship, and cases of disposable cups for the post-service fellowship. The refrigerator rattles ominously and the water has to run for a minute before it’s clear. Gideon tends to live on take-out when he’s not eating at a friend’s expense.

The top floor servants’ rooms have been relegated to storage and closed off to save heating costs. Gideon lives in the largest of the three bedrooms on the second floor. He sold most of the furniture years ago, but retains a huge chest of drawers and a double bed for his own use. This room would be handsome but for the peeling paper, the worn and dirty rug, the loose panes in the windows. Still, it’s grand enough for his own daily use and occasional company. The other two bedrooms contain only a few cheap cots and bunk beds reserved for acolytes when The Order requires a work crew, or when stragglers indulge in too much fellowship.

It’s not good enough. Two years into the Golden Mu endeavor and making barely enough to keep him in tailoring, and that’s with his allowance. As Julia so kindly and frequently points out, this is more than he managed when he tried telling fortunes, selling antiques, selling supplements, or dealing drugs, but Gideon knows in his heart he was destined for more. He throws his magazine down and reaches for the prize of his admittedly sparse library: The Book of Mu. This book is really just a binder heavily decorated by one of the more artistic church members; more synthetic plush and glitter. It contains all of Gideon’s Saturday sermons, lovingly transcribed and edited (cleaned up, Julia had sneered), every clipping and article the acolytes have been able to find about the Mega Wave technology, and the founding documents. These are two and a half pages of hand-written notes Gideon had found in the bottom of a leather satchel picked up in the Soames sale, back when he was attempting to buy and sell antiques at a profit. He lets members think these are the work of the great Jonathan Septimus, but in fact they’re from Thomas Evangely, a secondary figure in the Great Work. Gideon doesn’t understand the math or science in these notes in the least, no more than he understands the handful of academic books and articles on the subject. No matter, it’s the dream that counts; the dream of an army of biddable supermen, of unlimited power, of a happy populace, guided and managed by superior minds. Or, failing that, the dream of acquiring enough believers with deep pockets to finance the project regardless of results.

The Vanity Fair piece gives him an idea, vague, but something Julia can make into a plan. She’s been bored in the last few weeks. She believes in the Great Work as much as he does - perhaps more - but she’s impatient by nature and has a fearful temper, especially when she has little to do. Gideon is well aware that she’s been less sympathetic to his plight lately, and he knows that without her, the Order will founder. Today will be different. He’ll turn on his charm full blast at dinner and give her something to sink her teeth into. Julia loves excitement and a change of scene. No, better yet, he’ll bring along the Bakker piece and make her think America is her idea.

***

Sarah and Michael leave for university a few days after Erik returns from New York, leaving the house quieter and Marcus and Maddy a bit down. Erik makes a point of spending more time around the house, inviting his friends over and accompanying his foster parents on little errands. Unlike the rest of “the guys” Erik has to go to a new student orientation. It’s deadly dull; three separate pep talks, a tour of the school, and a review of the manual that takes much longer than just reading the damned thing would. Some of his fellow students smile and make small talk, but a few blatantly make fun of him behind his back. It takes a real effort of will not to roll his eyes at these fools or ignore the speakers completely, and when they’re finally released he gets on his bike and rides hard until he’s at the foot of the Peace Bridge. He could keep going, just empty his bank account and disappear. He could call Andre and have himself shipped off to a private school. Instead, he pedals his way to Unity Island at a saner pace and tries to figure out why this very minor ordeal has been so incredibly irritating. Maybe it’s because it was a little like the first day of the military, or a prison sentence. Maybe it’s because it drove the reality of the next few years home. Andre had warned him about the dangers of boredom, damn him for being right yet again. What would Andre suggest if he were here? Talk to Maddy, talk to Marcus. Make them happy by finally agreeing to see that damned therapist. Maybe call Dev and rant a little. He rides all the way around the park perimeter and then heads home.

Erik starts the first day of 10th grade on time, and prepared, with a bag full of new supplies and a posse of friends. Andre very pointedly does not call right away. Instead he waits until his usual time on Friday only to hear that everything is fine, don’t worry, it’s all cool.

“Bullshit.”

“All right, Andre, but what do you want from me? They gave me all the classes I wanted, now it’s up to me. I’m trying.”

“I know you can do it. Don’t let things build up, that’s all.”

“I won’t. I’ve even agreed to start seeing Dr. Brock, you’ll be pleased to hear. I swear, every other kid here has a therapist, and she’s supposed to be one of the best around. And I’ve found a few new ways of entertaining myself.”

“Such as?”

“For starters, I joined the Anti-Gravity Club.”

“Ooh, science?”

“Rock climbing and mountaineering. I’m going to try out for the cross country team next week. And I’m trying to be nicer to Marcus and Maddy.”

“They’ve noticed and are very touched. See how easy it is to make people happy?”
“Whatever, dude.”

“Cute. What did you end up getting this semester?”

“AP lit, AP world history, chemistry, P.E., and Advanced Latin 2.”

“You… asked for Latin?”

“I’m on the language track, at least for now. They don’t usually let sophomores take Latin 2, but I tested out of German and French, as you advised. If I pass - and I will - they’ll let me take Latin 3 next semester along with Mandarin 1.”

“And here I thought I was the geeky one. Don't you already speak Mandarin?”

“Not even close. Lhasa Tibetan. But let’s keep that to ourselves, shall we?”

“I can’t imagine it coming up in conversation. Good luck with the tryouts. Let me know how they go.”

“Of course, Uncle Andre. I tell you everything.”

***

The following week Andre and Maribella receive a flat package from the Wattells; three six-by-eight photographs marking Erik’s first day of school: Erik waving, Erik standing with his backpack, Erik with his three buddies at the end of the day. Maribella cracks up at the last one.

“Oh, my god. They look exactly like a boy band. This is hilarious.” She points to Caleb, who towers over the others. “This big doofus is the drummer, no question. The redhead kid is the non threatening singer all the nice girls like. This one is Dev, right? He’s the spiritual lyricist, the George Harrison of the group.”

“What about Erik?”

“Oh, aloof, bad boy, lead guitar, no question. All black and white, closed mouth smile. Silly girls will think he’s mysterious. Too funny. I’m framing this one too.”

“He’s wearing the bracelet.”

“I’m glad he really likes it. He’s doing a good job of hiding his nerves.”

Andre looks at the picture again and sees nothing to indicate unease, but he’s come to realize that Maribella is a kind of a witch with these things, so he accepts her verdict.

That Friday Erik reports that he made the cross country team, naturally, and has decided that the secret to avoiding trouble is to keep busy and always have something to look forward to. Hormonal surges aside, Erik has a lifetime of time management behind him and no temptation to procrastinate or daydream. Everything is planned, color-coded on the calendar, and recorded in his journal. He wakes up before seven every weekday, takes Buddy for a walk, then breakfast, school, and after school activities: training, club, library, visits to Dr. Brock every other week, his weekly call to Andre. Homework and chores after dinner except Mondays (taekwondo) and Wednesdays (cross-country meets). He tries to spend part of every evening with Maddy and Marcus, even Thursdays which are set aside for writing letters. He usually has a little time to read before he showers and then bed by ten. When Andre objects to his asceticism, Erik points out that he needs lots of sleep if he hopes to crack six feet, and besides, he usually spends Friday or Saturday evening with The Guys and does something fun on Sundays, a hike, swimming, gun range with Maddy, or just exploring on his own.

To his own amusement, Erik has found himself part of a clique of good kids. Dev and Caleb have been friends since kindergarten and are both well liked. People laugh at Caleb’s antics and what passed for wit at this stage. Dev is famously helpful and reliable, always pitching in and befriending new kids, which is how he met J.T. when the MacGregors moved to Buffalo five years ago. When J.T. started dating Amy Yamada in eighth grade, she brought her friends and their boyfriends and hangers-on into the circle. Amy’s twin brother, Charley, sometimes hangs out with them, but generally prefers to spend time with his football and lacrosse friends. They get decent grades, participate in clubs and activities, dress well, and live in nice homes, but they’re not the super rich brats, the tough kids, the jocks, the arts and theatre kids, or the science geeks, although there is a fair amount of cross pollination. Erik briefly considers jumping ship to the money clique but they seem boring and not all that much richer than the others, just more vocal about it. Besides, this is a rigid society and it’s probably best to “dance with the one that brung you.”

Erik’s overall strategy is to keep his head high and his mouth closed. Caleb inadvertently paints a target on his back by hilariously retelling the story of how they met, thus building up Erik’s reputation as a badass. Rather than telling him to shut up, Erik increases his vigilance and waits. Sure enough, a hulking junior makes a run at shoving Erik straight into his own locker, but somehow ends up tripping over the smaller boy and falling face first into the locker himself. Between slicing his face open on a hook and getting a sharp jab to the testicles, the would-be bully is in no shape to hurt anyone. Erik hauls the big kid out and drops him in front of his friends, who decline his poker-faced offer to escort them to the nurse’s office. Another boy who gets pushy in P.E. earns a broken nose and profuse, insincere apologies. A few observant teachers notice that everyone who pokes at the Ostrovsky kid ends up bleeding, but since Erik never displays anger or initiates violence, they can’t really find fault. As Erik had told Andre, school is not entirely unlike prison.

Also, not unlike a palace, particularly with the girls. Amy’s close friends are reasonable people with whom one can have a conversation or check homework. The same cannot be said for all the others. Erik feigns deafness to the giggles and whispers, no matter how obvious. When Amy relays that this girl or the other thinks he’s “cute” he gravely thanks her for the information and stays noncommittal. Unlike the other students, Erik is not reliant on his supposed peer group. Their approval and company doesn’t matter that much to him, which is a great advantage. He can genuinely dismiss their judgment and snideness; up to a point.

When one of the theatre girls makes a nasty comment about Amy and J.T.’s relationship, he snaps. “Well, Chrissie, you know how it is. Some of us are monogamous, and some of us really, truly aren’t. Can barely comprehend the notion.” It’s a cheap shot, but it lands. Chrissie retreats with as much dignity as she can salvage and Erik earns Amy’s approval.

One of the rich brats, Samantha something, offers the name of her plastic surgeon in case he wants to get an inch or two shaved off his nose. Erik’s reaction is to laugh. “You know what they say about big noses?”

The girl looks to her friends, who are waiting for a chance to scream in disgust. After a long, embarrassing moment, Erik continues.

“Fewer sinus problems. I’m surprised your surgeon didn’t mention that.” His entire lunch table cracks up, so while it’s not the wittiest remark ever, he can count a win.

More troubling is the outrageous behaviour of a junior girl who keeps shoving her boobs under his nose whenever they meet. Amy tells him that her name is Mandy Eriksen and she was dating the kid who tried shoving him in the locker all last year. Great. Just great. He has lost track of how many women have tried using him to get back at husbands and lovers and has no intention of putting up with that crap again. Besides, Mandy is 17, both too young and too old, as usual. The next time she starts up the hair flipping and tit heaving, Erik writes his number on a piece of notepaper and tucks it into her skirt pocket “Call me when you decide to stop showing off,” he whispers, an inch from her ear. Mandy doesn’t call, but she doesn’t flirt with him again either. Erik gets a reputation for being “a little blunt” but since he never uses profanity or makes threats, he rarely gets called on it. In this world “niceness,” or the appearance of niceness, is more important than actual kindness, although most of his new friends can do both.

The school has a policy that teachers must make ten calls home a week and reach each student’s home at least once a month. Maddy and Marcus make notes and report back to Andre. Erik is a thoughtful student and certainly made a spirited defense of King Claudius. Erik is performing well in Chemistry and doesn’t need to be so quiet in class. Erik is a natural athlete and should perhaps be more forgiving of those who aren’t. Erik will certainly be promoted to Latin III if he keeps up the excellent work. Erik has lunch detention this Friday and is requested to write a letter of apology to his World History teacher.

“No way in hell, Andre. They can whistle for their apology.”

Andre sighs and gets comfortable in his chair. He’s already through all of this with Maddy and Marcus and they couldn’t budge the kid. One of his classmates had asked about religion as a motivation for war and Mr. Morris had mentioned some world leaders who were atheists, including the late Basam Damdu.

“He was a Buddhist! A terrible Buddhist, but absolutely, one hundreds percent a Buddhist. He had a shrine, He observed the rites. He was a goddamned Buddhist. Are the Medicis suddenly not Catholic because they were thieves and murderers? I ask you!”

Andre lets him rant for another five minutes, and when he runs out of steam, asks two questions.

“How old is Mr. Morris?”

“I don’t know. Youngish, 27 or 28 I suppose.”

“A young man in the prime of life, like you are supposed to be right now.”

“Your point?”

“What time is your World History class?”

“Third period, 11 a.m.”

“Just before lunch, when you’re at your bitchiest and most irritable.”

“All right, Andre. Out with it. I probably deserve it.”

“I’m just saying that when one is playing a long game, one might want to take one’s lumps gracefully, especially if one is living with kindly people who are missing their own children and only want the best for, um, one”

Erik serves the detention without complaint and turns in his letter; four type-written pages, one spent apologizing for interrupting class and having a poor attitude, and three explaining Erik’s reasoning including AP citations from five respected historians of The Yellow Empire. Mr. Morris reads the letter with growing horror, and immediately shares it with his mentor, who laughs her ass off.

“This is great work! You should be pleased. If I were you, I’d let the punishment stand and make friends with the kid. You can’t say he doesn’t have a real interest in history.”

The following week Mr. Morris acknowledges his error in front of the whole class and asks that students with pertinent information come to him between classes. Erik apologizes again, out loud, and by the middle of the term Morris is lending him books and giving him film recommendations.

This is real progress, as Dr. Brock points out at their third appointment. Erik admits that it’s helpful to analyze his anger triggers with a disinterested professional. He can tell Brock about wanting to murder his history teacher or the useless load on the cross-country team, and she helps him figure out courses of action and thought that exclude murder. He’s mostly honest with her, at least when she shows him that her notes are cryptic to the point of being unreadable and stored under a false name. He won’t talk about his past or his parents, but that’s okay. Dr. Brock has time.

It’s not all work and politics, of course. Erik and his friends are children and sometimes even he indulges in childish things. One windy night, the first Saturday in October, Erik and The Guys are watching the Tod Browning Dracula in the MacGregor rec. room. They break to make another batch of popcorn and Erik surprises everyone by narrating the process in a pitch-perfect Bela Lugosi voice. Caleb goes nuts over it. Why has Erik been hiding this priceless gift all these months? At their urging Erik “does” Mr. Morris, Principal Harrison, and each one of his friends.

“Do Dracula again,” J.T. urges.

“Vy do you harass me in thees schildeesh manner?”

J.T. gets a huge grin on his face, grabs a handful of VHS tapes out of the cabinet, and spreads them out on the coffee table. “You have to be Dracula.” He points at Caleb. “Frankenstein.”

“Ooooooh, shit. I’m the Mummy,” says Dev.

“And I’m obviously the wolf man.” J.T. arranges the video cases to display the covers in order. “We could win with this.”

Now the boys have a project. In their free time they collect supplies for their costumes from thrift shops and dollar stores. Maddy donates an hour of sewing and makes Erik a cape lined in red satin, but he finds his own suit, vest, and fake teeth, and makes a medal out of a lady’s vintage brooch and a strip of grosgrain ribbon. J.T. has the easiest time with clothes, but he had to work on the fake hair forever to get it right. Dev decides to go for the Karloff mummy in his emaciated, fez-wearing form, and practices drawing on wrinkles with black eyeliner in his spare time. As for Caleb, he swings from being incredibly enthusiastic to forgetting about the project for days at a time. It’s Erik who finds novelty platform boots that add an extra five inches to Caleb’s 6’ 4’. It’s Dev who cleverly creates a square headpiece out of an old hockey helmet and papier-mâché.

The other boys forgive Caleb easily because he’s going through a rough time with his folks. He alternates one week with each of them and it’s driving him batshit. Candice Moore never wants him to leave the condo, even though she spends most of her time on the phone. Bob Moore wants to have quality father-son time, but his mistress - now girlfriend - has moved into the house and Caleb cannot deal with it. He giggles too much in class and has nodded off a few times in the afternoon. Sometimes he’s short-tempered and hollow-eyed and sometimes he hugs his friends like they’re on The Titanic, going down. He still eats lunch with the group, but often he shows up late or hangs back to talk to some of the seniors.

Dev is truly worried and says so to Erik and J.T. Ever the comforter, J.T. suggests that it’s just a phase and that when Caleb’s folks get their act together, he’ll be his old self, probably by Thanksgiving. Erik has his own ideas, but when he asks if Caleb has used drugs before, both of the other boys freak out. Caleb would never! He’s not that stupid! He’s just upset! Where would he even get drugs at Silver Birch?

Erik lets it go, but warns Caleb that if he flakes out on them with the costume contest, he will get a repeat the ass-kicking and Erik will mean it this time. Caleb doesn’t even bother acting offended. He promises to be good and makes excuses about his “habits” which he insists aren’t that big a deal. Caleb says he’s just self-medicating a little to deal with his parents’ craziness. If he didn’t get a high now and then, he’d set fire to the house or punch someone. Erik, having chosen not to self-medicate during his own youthful crises, can hardly argue with him.

On October 18, Erik attends Dev’s 16th birthday party, and Marcus and Maddy go to their first parent-teacher conference in four years. After meeting Erik’s teachers they’re surprised and gratified to see his name on the huge honor roll poster in the cafeteria. Erik is already in his room with headphones on when they return, so he’s surprised when they knock on his door, and even more when they surround him like he’s a Maypole and begin chanting. Maddy is holding a bouquet of red helium balloons.

“Ho-nor roll! Ho-nor roll!” They squish Erik in a hug until his feet barely touch the ground.

“Why didn’t you tell us, man? This is great news!”

“It’s only the first quarter, Marcus. I didn’t want to be premature.”

“Well, we’re proud of you anyway, like it or not.” Maddy ties the balloons to his bedpost where they remain until they’re limp on the floor.

***
October 31 falls on a Tuesday this year, and unlike many public schools, Silver Birch doesn’t shy away from (tasteful) costumes or festivities. At 1 p.m. the middle and upper schools join together in the big auditorium to watch the costume parade. Grade by grade, students cross the stage to yelling and clapping, and the sound of candy being surreptitiously unwrapped. Competition is stiff. These kids have time and money and sometimes servants to help with their costumes. Money can’t buy style, however. When the 10th grade competitors cross the stage The Guys hold back a second, then walk to the center and face the audience head on.

“Good afternoooooon,” Erik calls, full Lugosi and loud enough to carry across the room. He flourishes his cape. Instantly, Caleb shrieks, J.T. howls, and Dev raises his “scroll of Thoth” high. It isn’t fair to say the crowd goes wild, because they’ve been wild all afternoon, but it takes a long time for the hooting to die down. Caleb ties with a girl wearing a cardboard television and boxing gloves (action news) for best costume, 10th Grade, and the four boys win for best group costume school-wide. Caleb’s prize is four movie passes, and the group wins a $150 gift card for a local pizza place.

Erik decides to skip parties and instead hand out candy - in full costume - with Maddy and Marcus. The Guys will meet up Friday night to celebrate and eat up their prizes. Caleb shows up at the restaurant thirty minutes late, bright-eyed and restless. He eats a slice of pizza and takes a bite of one of Erik’s hot fried peppers before remembering that he hates peppers. Halfway through the meal he tosses the movie passes on the table and starts making excuses: something came up, make it up to you later, use the passes for yourselves. Erik takes this opportunity to practice his calming techniques instead of reaching over and slapping Caleb right there. Dev is near tears as he watches his oldest friend stagger off into the night.

J.T. picks up the passes and hands them to Dev. “You should take them for safekeeping until he stops being such a douche.”

Erik has a dozen different retorts on the tip of his tongue, but he bites them all back and opens the menu to the dessert page. “Let’s see if we can spend this card in one go.”

Chapter Text

Erik knows for a fact that people as unreliable as Caleb have been shot for their failures. Nobody so flaky would get in the door at Redwing, but if they did, they’d be out by noon. If they were in a military school, Caleb would at least get a dunk in the pond or maybe a sound beating. As it is, he suffers no consequences worth the name, at least to Erik’s way of thinking. Caleb’s grades drop and he’s put on academic probation. His parents have frosty arguments about getting him into counseling, but nothing comes of it. Caleb’s friends stop speaking frankly to him and don’t include him in plans, but he’s still permitted to eat lunch with The Guys when he shows up, and sometimes he joins them when they’re out with a bigger group. Erik doesn’t object, mostly because Caleb has been part of this circle longer than he has, but also because he’s curious to see just how badly a sixteen-year-old with money and parents can screw up his life.

Caleb’s problems are annoying, but they take up very little of Erik’s mental real estate. It’s a busy time of year, with only six weeks left before first term finals, and one of those includes the Thanksgiving holiday. His studies are surprisingly challenging, if not entirely new. As he explains to Andre, he’s seen Hamlet in three languages, but he’s never had to write about it, and while much of the Latin is review, he now has to be creative with it, something unheard of in the old days. Making the honor roll is “part of the plan.” As near as Andre can tell, “the plan” is to look good on paper and then… world domination? Erik doesn’t say so, but Andre is convinced that he’s enjoying structured learning, moving from one level to the next, showing the world how smart he is.

Erik isn’t the only one hard at work. Maddy has received the proofs for her most recent novel and is completely absorbed in the final edit. Sometimes she stares at a single sheet for an hour before putting it away untouched, only to snatch it back later. She won’t let anyone read the draft, not even Marcus, who is used to waiting for his presentation copy. When Erik asks her what the book is about, she answers that “it’s about 90 percent done.” Marcus is also excited about his work. He’s putting together a proposal for a combination synagogue and community center. If it works out it will be something different for him, a chance to really make a mark on the community and give back.

Sarah has given up on the gap year idea. Going into senior year without her boyfriend seemed awkward and lonely in the summer, but now she’s energized. There are many men, young and not-so-young, who try distract her, but she’s having none of it, certainly not until she’s accepted into grad school. Besides, she doesn’t quite trust her own judgment when it comes to men just now. Michael says he’s doing well and enjoying the teaching part of his studies, but he’s not very specific. Like Maddy, he likes to wait for things to be finished before sharing.

A week after the costume contest Erik comes home to find Maddy sobbing at the kitchen table. He stops dead, assuming that there’s been an accident, a death perhaps, but Maddy waves him over. She has good news, actually, despite the tears. Michael called earlier to say that he’ll be presenting his thesis at Imperial College in London next February. It’s something he’s been preparing for more than a year, a very big deal. Maddy collects herself and apologizes for scaring Erik. It’s just that she’s so proud of her children and sometimes that spills over.

“He was such a strange, gentle little boy, with his blocks and his toy abacus. Not like any of the other kids. How many toddlers have a favorite number? ‘Five is pink ,like you, mama!’ We were so worried about him getting picked on. You always worry about your children. Always. Children are your heart, sent out into the world. You’ll see for yourself some day.” She wipes her eyes and smiles, tears still running down her face. “The work he’s doing will mean fewer people dying in earthquakes. Somehow my baby boy is going to save lives with math. How is that not magic?

The next time Michael calls, Erik gets on the line to congratulate him, truly happy for his foster brother. Michael doesn’t sound much like a genius as he giggles on the phone, but he tells the family that he’ll definitely be awarded his degree in the spring and might be up for a prize or two, so make plans for commencement in May. Erik will be there too, right? Of course he will, Erik answers. When the call is over Erik has a vision of future graduations, weddings, christenings, even funerals. Will the Wattell family be there when he graduates from Silver Birch? Is it wise to even think about something nearly three years away?

He doesn’t have as much leisure time now, but Erik still hangs out with what he thinks of as the Good Kid Gang. He and Dev grow a little closer, and Dev convinces him to take downhill skiing lessons when the resorts open. He’s told J.T. about an imaginary ex-girlfriend who broke his heart last year, knowing it will get back to Amy. She still tries to nudge him towards her friends when they go out in a group, but not hard enough to be a bother. One of these days he’ll have to find a way to address the restlessness and abstract loneliness that permeates the surface of his skin, but not from within his own peers.

Erik also indulges in a little independent reconnaissance. Caleb’s new friend in twelfth grade is Jason Beaudoin and Erik is almost sure he’s one of the young men he spotted buying drugs over the summer. His father is Elijah Beaudoin, who has one of the strangest, most Americans professions there is. He has his own radio show where he preaches the gospel, or at least the gospels according to him. It’s nothing Erik recognizes from his own bygone training in Christianity. Erik visits the library and the morgue of a local daily to find out more. The elder Beaudoin was a Lutheran pastor but left (or was pushed from?) the established church fifteen years ago to start his own ministry of the airwaves, which along with real estate speculation has made him rich. He is active is ultra-conservative political organizations and sometimes shows up at rallies and sporting events with his pretty wife, who has never been on the air or spoken in public.

Young Jason has two classmates who follow him everywhere. Their names are Ben and Tim, but be damned if Erik can remember which is which. Although Jason has the kind of good looks money can buy - all tied up with teeth and hair - he doesn’t have a girlfriend. The girls who hang around him are all younger and Erik personally witnessed one of them being dragged away from Jason by an older sister. Beaudoin isn’t liked by his classmates, but he is tolerated because seniors are mostly too busy and grown-up to indulge in grudges and feuds, and because he brings free weed to parties.

Erik has met a lot of Beaudoins in his life. Most have been smarter, or stronger but none of them think through their plans, if they even bother making them. They believe they will succeed based on who they are, not what they do or know. They believe they are entitled to own the world and are outraged when it doesn’t cooperate. They have no ability to roll with the punches and they never appreciate their henchmen or pay their agents on time. People like this are often ridiculous and they’re always dangerous.

Erik also asks Andre enough questions about illicit drug use that the lawyer starts to worry. He’s not satisfied until Erik explains exactly what Caleb has been up to, or at least what Erik thinks he’s been up to. No, Andre, nobody is selling drugs at the school as far as he knows. No, just Caleb, and he’s using, not dealing. He won’t explain to Andre exactly why the idea of using anything really strong is so personally horrifying but his denials are convincing enough. Andre warns him not to get involved, which Erik takes as something a lawyer has to say. After all, he’s already involved.

Caleb tries to pull The Guys into the Beaudoin orbit. He swears that Jason is really nice if they’d just give him a chance. He’s a lot of fun and has a great house and a huge video game collection. If they’d come over just once they’d all see how wrong they’ve been about him. Finally, Caleb gets angry. What the hell is the matter with them? Do they think they’re too good for other people?

“Yes, actually,” Dev answers. “At least too good for that jerkass and his pet morons.”

“It’s not difficult to be too good for that lot,” Erik adds. “Effortless, in fact.”

“You’re too good for them too,” says J.T. “For now.”

Coming from J.T. that smarts, and Caleb storms off, much too dramatically for Erik to respect in the slightest. J.T. and Dev are immediately sorry for telling the plain truth, and have a long, naive discussion about second chances and friendship. They’re so serious, so determined to do the right thing. Erik finds their discussion fascinating, not because they’re profound, but because they’re developing their moral compasses before his eyes and grappling with big issues like loyalty and redemption, drawing other people at the lunch table into the discussion until the whole lot of them are having a philosophical discussion that Erik lets wash over him like the noise of birds.

The week before Thanksgiving is a little wild, but packed with activity. The students are excited about a whole week off; some are stressed about having to spend time with their families, some are excited about siblings coming home or traveling to see family. Maddy sends her proofs off by courier and stocks up on groceries. Marcus jams all his work meetings together to be able to stay home for the entire holiday. Erik is bemused by it all but is looking forward to seeing Sarah and Michael again and maybe skiing if the weather cooperates. He isn’t thinking about Jason or Caleb at all when school ends for the day Monday. The hall is crowded and smells of damp coats and teenagers. Teachers are in the hallway, urging everyone to clear out quickly. The Anti-Gravity Club isn’t having a practice after school so Erik plans to walk most of the way home with Dev and J.T. They’re by Dev’s locker, ready to go, but Caleb is there too, with Jason.

Ben and Tim are hanging back, snickering like idiots. Erik sighs when he realizes that they’re having the same boring argument. Caleb wants them to go with him, Dev will have none of it. Will it never end?

“Hey, Caleb, it’s okay,” Jason interrupts in a sarcastic drawl. “You hang out with little Paki pal. Me and my friends will go and have some actual fun.”

Dev freezes, furious beyond speech. Caleb’s mouth opens but all that comes out is a weak, “hey.” J.T. has balled his hands into fists and is about to do something stupid, and Erik can’t have that. He steps between Jason and his friends.

“You don’t have friends, you shaved ape. You have goons and customers too cheap to buy quality drugs. No girl who can drive will even look at you.”

Jason lunges forward to give Erik a push and to everyone’s surprise - even Jason’s - Erik goes flying. He crashes into the lockers causing an enormous racket, scattering books everywhere. Mr. Morris, who’s been standing guard outside his door, positively sprints in response. He lifts Erik by one arm and snaps at all the boys to follow him to Principal Harrison’s office, right now, no arguments. J.T., bless him, ignores that, and insists that Erik has to go to the nurse before he gives a statement. He might have a concussion, and everyone knows that Erik has to be super careful about concussions.

By the time Erik is cleared by the nurse (“You’re fine. Go home.”) Dev and J.T. have already told the whole story, backed up by three students who overheard Jason use the racial slur. Jason’s defence is that he was only joking about Dev and reacted to Erik’s insults without thinking. Harrison is inclined to give Jason a break, but the school has a new zero-tolerance policy on racist attacks and the Banerjees will absolutely raise hell. He briefly considers punishing Erik along with Jason, but the Ostrovsky kid’s legal guardian is a New York lawyer, one that Erik invokes before saying anything else. Then there’s Morris yammering on about how this could affect fundraising, as if he needs another headache. Harrison checks the records and sees that this is Beaudoin’s third screwup this semester, which clears the way to a suspension.

The verdict: Jason will spend Tuesday and Wednesday at home. Erik endures a lecture about leaving disputes to the proper authorities, however righteous he might feel. Harrison will call Mr. Torres as well as the Wattells to explain the situation. Dev gets some public relations spiel about the school’s firm anti-racist stand. J.T. has the pleasure of watching Jason stalk out of the school in a rage, and the shame of watching Caleb sheepishly follow. Erik doesn’t see how getting two days off school the week before a holiday is a punishment, but Dev seems pleased; something about a permanent record, as if such a thing exists. J.T. gives Erik a surreptitious high-five. Who would have guessed that genial James Tyler would come up with that “concussion” nonsense on the fly?

Caleb avoids his friends for the rest of the week. He spends lunch making up late assignments with teachers, or so he says. Dev insists he doesn’t care and is too busy to worry about Caleb. Erik really is too busy to care. He has to finish a chem project and his Latin composition, and there’s a poetry exam on Thursday. Wednesday is the last cross- country match of the season and Erik runs his heart out, earning his first “Most Valuable Runner” commendation.

By Thursday evening Erik is worn out and can’t wait for the break. Maybe he’s about to have another growth spurt? Although if that were the case he’d be hungrier, and he barely got through dinner. He wakes up way too early Friday morning, too cold to get back to sleep. Fine. He gets dressed and takes Buddy for his usual walk refusing to cut it short although it’s clear he’s caught a cold or some kind of bug. When he gets home Marcus gives him a narrow look and gets out the thermometer: 100 degrees. Dammit. He doesn’t have to do the mental conversion to know that’s bad.

The Wattells have been through this many times. Maddy grabs the phone and a notebook, Marcus gets his keys and a spare blanket. Erik is ordered to stop fretting and talking and leave everything to the grownups. The clinic staff are expecting them and administer a strep test immediately. They have to wait half an hour for the doctor, but by they already know Erik has strep throat. The doctor writes a prescription and reminds Marcus that Erik will be contagious for 24 hours after he starts taking the antibiotics, so take precautions and keep an eye on the fever.

Erik’s throat is on fire and his eyes feel hot and dry by the time they get home. He has no appetite but he swallows a tiny bit of instant oatmeal to help the meds stay down. All he wants to do is sleep and it’s a huge relief when he’s back in bed, in his quiet, white room, with all the lights off and the blinds drawn.

Maddy has already called the school, of course. Marcus has a meeting downtown so he’ll stop by the school to get Erik’s things and drop off the doctor’s note. Maddy had planned to do some early Christmas shopping but decides to stay home and keep an eye on poor Erik, who can’t be expected to feed himself or remember to take meds in this state. For some people strep is a minor inconvenience, a bit of scratchiness in the throat, but Erik has the full run of symptoms: fever, chills, stomach upset, swollen glands, red spots in his mouth, and a bad headache.

Erik sleeps and sleeps. Maddy wakes him up at noon to check his temperature. It’s 101 now, so she gives him acetaminophen and a small dish of ice cream. She’s called Andre, she’s called Dr. Brock, she’s called Dev’s family. Stop worrying. Go back to sleep. He wakes up a few hours later and notices that his gym clothes are clean and folded on his dresser and his book bag is on its normal hook. Erik takes the elevator to the main floor and finds Maddy and Marcus in the kitchen deep in conversation. His fever is down to 100 again, and while he’s not hungry, he eats some chicken and rice soup to keep up his strength. Marcus has brought him another graphic novel from the series he likes, but his head hurts too much for reading. He manages to sit up long enough to watch the news with his foster family, but is soon nodding off again. Marcus takes him back to his room and sees that he has an extra blanket and water. Being sick is miserable but there’s a comfort in letting go, knowing that competent people are turning the wheels while he rests. Marcus tucks a heating pad below Erik’s feet and pulls the blankets straight. Erik is to sleep as much as possible and call them if he feels worse. They’ll be checking on him in the night anyway. Sleep tight. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.

***

The weekend is pretty much written off to illness. Erik is still weak and feverish. He spends most of the time on the living room couch in pyjamas and bundled up in blankets. At least he can watch television and read a little, but even taking a shower is a chore. Marcus keeps him on his med schedule, Buddy keeps him company, and Maddy reads him some short stories from one of her earlier books. Dev and J.T. call but Erik’s throat is very sore and he doesn’t feel like talking. J.T. mentions that a few other people have strep, but he and Amy are fine, and so is Dev. Caleb didn’t come to school Friday either, but neither J.T. nor Dev have contacted him. Dev studiously doesn’t mention Caleb. Patty is back for the week, so the whole family is going skiing. He’ll stop by Erik’s house when they get back. Erik sits at the table for Sunday dinner and makes an effort to eat his stew and mashed potatoes. His fever spikes up again and his foster parents are concerned. If he’s not much improved in the morning he’s going back to the clinic or maybe even to urgent care. Erik goes to bed right after dinner and envisions himself getting well. He imagines the fever as a fire, the tall flames shrinking, dying down, receding into glowing embers, ashes growing cold. In the middle of the night he wakes up confused. Maddy’s hand is on his forehead. He’s doing better, she says. Maybe they can avoid another doctor visit after all. Sleep tight. Don’t worry. Everything is fine.

***

On Monday morning Erik wakes up hungry. He opens the curtains and see sunlight. It’s already ten o’clock. He drinks some water and realizes that his throat doesn’t hurt any more. He feels a little weak and loopy, almost euphoric, as if he could float across the room. There’s a knock at his door.

“One second!” Erik opens up to see Michael Wattell standing there, big hair, big glasses, big smile. He got in last night but Erik was too sick to see him.

“But you look pretty good now. Hold on. I need to do this before I forget.” Michael brandishes a thermometer. Erik takes his own temperature, which is down to 98.8. practically normal. Michael looks his list of instructions and watches Erik take his meds so he can check off that item. It’s just the two of them in the house; well, them and Buddy. Michael’s parents have an appointment and Sarah won’t be home until this evening. Would Erik like to have breakfast now? Michael can arrange that, and then perhaps a movie or some music, both on the list of approved activities.

What Erik wants most is a shower and clean clothes. Michael kindly helps him change the bedsheets and waits for him to throw his pyjamas in the laundry basket. He’ll put on a load while Erik cleans up, and then make them toad-in-the-hole, a dish Michael learned to cook solely because of the silly name. Erik showers and washes his hair very thoroughly, sloughing off the stickiness of fever. He puts on jeans and a soft sweatshirt and decides he’d love to watch a video with Michael and Buddy. He joins Michael in the kitchen and pours himself a cup of tea. It hits him how odd it is for the two of them to be in the house by themselves. What had Michael said about an appointment?

“When are your folks coming back?”

“Pretty soon. The school wanted to them to sign something or other. How long can that take?” Michael stops abruptly and does a full body cringe. “Dammit, dammit, dammit! I wasn’t supposed to mention the school. It’s on the note and everything.”

“You have to tell me now, or I’ll freak out and maybe have a relapse. Am I in trouble?”

“No, it’s way weirder than that.”

***

This is what happened: Maddy Wattell knows the staff of Silver Birch are always hopping on the last day before any school break, so that was her second call Friday morning, right after the clinic. She reached Imogenia (Genie) Washington, the attendance clerk, and explained the situation with Erik. Would Genie mind getting the boy’s things out of his locker, if it isn’t any trouble? Marcus will be by soon to drop off the doctor’s note and it would be nice if he didn’t have to push through a crowded hallway, especially with strep being a possibility.

Mrs. Washington would be happy to do the Wattells a favor. She has fond memories of Michael and Sarah and the Wattell family has always been very decent to her and the other administrative staff. She looks up Erik’s locker combination and decides to pop down right away, before the first bell rings and the hallways are impossible. Erik’s locker is unusually neat and spare. The only decoration is a picture from the school newspaper: Erik and his three friends in their Halloween costumes. The gym bag is on the bottom, zipped up tight, the black backpack hangs from the double hook. There are two paperbacks on the top shelf which she drops into the backpack just in case. She leaves the locker empty and stores Erik’s bags under her desk.

At ten o’clock Principal Harrison gets an anonymous call that one of his students is a drug dealer. If he checks Erik Ostrovsky’s locker he will find a big bag of cocaine. Do it now before Ostrovsky has a chance to sell it. Genie informs the principal that Erik won’t be selling anything because he’s home sick, and in any case his bags are right there on the floor. Harrison opens the bag and backpack with Mrs. Washington as a witness: dirty gym clothes, clean towel, toiletries, textbooks, notebooks, pens, two little bags of chocolate almonds, one granola bar, one comb. Genie has a weird feeling about this and follows Harrison to the locker. Sure enough, there’s a zip-lock bag of white powder right on the shelf she’d emptied not two hours ago. The newspaper clipping is gone. Harrison is about to pick up the bag, but Genie stops him.

“Don’t touch it! There might be fingerprints.”

For three days, while Erik sleeps and sweats out his illness, Marcus, Maddy, and Andre are in constant communication with each other, the school authorities, and the local police. The bag proves to be a lot of baby powder mixed with about a gram of cocaine. There’s no question that someone tried to set up Erik Ostrovsky, but who, and why? Andre is outraged, threatening a lawsuit and a private investigation. These actions may or may not be within Andre’s power, but the threat alone lights a fire under Harrison, who in turn pressures the cops who actually open a case file.

As Detective Rossi points out, they’re not dealing with master criminals here. The first lead is from tenth grade English teacher Lynda Wu who had to step out of her classroom at 9:15 to shush a kid who was cursing and messing with a locker while class was in session. It took her a few minutes to register how odd it was to see a junior in the sophomore hall, which is why it stuck in her mind. Can she identify the student? Absolutely. She taught him last year. The student in question has the ill fortune to be 18, so while Rossi grants him the courtesy of calling his parents before a formal arrest, they’re told to meet their son at the station.

Michael’s account is a bit confusing, but it seems that Maddy and Marcus are at the school signing a paper that says that they’re happy with how the school handled the investigation and respected Erik’s civil rights. The document doesn’t mean much, legally, but Harrison wants it anyway. Since Erik isn’t in trouble and probably won’t even have to talk to the police, the Wattells are happy enough to sign as Andre advises.

“So Jason Beaudoin has been arrested?” Erik asks.

That wasn’t the name; Michael is sure of that much. It was Bob, or Tom. Tim? Maybe. Or could be Ben. Or maybe Jon or Jim. Something short. The last name was definitely Oersted, like the physicist, but that doesn’t help Erik much. There are two main facts he has to deal with now. One, Beaudoin is still out there. Two, Beaudoin got Erik’s locker combination, which means that Caleb is involved. He will have to deal this directly.

“See, I shouldn’t have told you. Now you’re all upset.”

“Don’t worry about me. I feel great. In fact, I feel so great I won’t even argue with you about the movie.” Erik happily digs into his breakfast. Nothing like having a revenge mission to whet the appetite.

Chapter Text

The bouquet is literally one of the sorriest excuses for an apology Julia Grenfell has ever seen. Everything about it says seasonal special, very likely the second least expensive option of its kind. It’s a mess of daisy-like things mixed with fuzzy things and pointy things, all in riotous autumn shades of russet, gold, and purple. The card reads “Sorry for being so much trouble - G” in generic clerk handwriting. Gideon is out of his mind if he thinks this will in any way make up for the “trouble” he’s caused her lately. There is absolutely no way this abomination will be allowed to take up space in her shop (he didn’t even send it to her home) but before she can throw it in the bin, inspiration strikes. Julia takes one of her own cards and writes “Dearest Gilly, Thinking of you always, Julia.” The delicate pink card stock looks out of place on the flamboyant bouquet, but Gilly won’t notice. She’s always so grateful for any little gesture, and, frankly, has no taste that Julia has noticed.

The thought of getting rid of Gideon’s flowers in such a satisfying way provides Julia with a bit of cheer on this miserable November day. It had started all wrong when Allison, her assistant, had left the place neat enough Saturday night, but had neglected to toss the spent tea lights and clean the old wax off the holders. Julia had noticed before she even opened the front door and had lined the offending candles in a row on the counter.

“Allison, I believe I have mentioned, more than once, that I expect to be able to arrive here at 9:59, open the door, and be ready for customers at 10.”

“Yes, miss. But you never do get here later than 9:30,” Allison mumbles, foolish girl.

Julia’s answer is a long, wistful stare. Ten more seconds and Allison will start to cry, but she relents and waves the girl away. “You know where to find the wax remover.”

Allison isn’t actually that bad an employee. At least, she’s careful and the customers like her. Looking at the accounts Julia realizes that Saturday was a particularly busy evening. Very good. Always nice to know the money is coming in while she’s dealing with Gideon. She’ll have to throw Allison a bone later. Things are starting to pick up with Christmas coming, and she can’t have the girl resentful or overwhelmed. Perhaps she’ll have to hire an extra hand for the weekend, at least if she continues to work with The Golden Mu.

Five years ago, when she’d first met Gideon, Charisma had been a straight up occult shop, all crystals, tarot cards, and black lace curtains. He’d bought a few used books and a crystal sphere - the smallest in her inventory - and had attempted, unsuccessfully, to pick her brain. A more obviously fake psychic she’d rarely met, but there was something about him, an ability to charm. Of course she’d remembered what a mess he’d been back at Oxford and was on guard, but even so, she’d felt herself being drawn in. She’d wanted to believe him, knowing well that he was, and always would be, a liar. He hadn’t remembered her, at all. Gideon is not an observant person, and she is quite different now, thanks to contacts, dental work, and a very strict diet that’s taken her from healthy average to fashionable. Besides, she was still Elaine then, having switched to her middle name after completing school. Gideon is under the impression that she left Oxford before he did, unaware that she is six years younger than she claims. Her first year had been his last and he hadn’t stayed the full term. He’s never acknowledged dropping out and still refers to himself, very casually, as an Oxford Man.

Julia still sells crystals and keeps a few novelty tarot decks in stock, but she’s gradually transformed Charisma into the kind of boutique where women with money buy spiritually themed jewelry, supplements, and scented bath oils marketed with vague therapeutic claims. If they’re feeling naughty there's a whole section where one can buy discreetly packaged toys and games. The black lace curtains and incense are long gone. Now everything is clean and spare, soft white, dove grey, delicate accents of dusky blue and violet, reflecting Julia’s own work wardrobe. When the weather turns chilly she lights unscented soy candles (also available for sale). White fairy lights are strung up on December 1 and taken down promptly on January 6. Gideon’s bouquet stands out like a red dress at a funeral.

Julia waits on customers and works on her orders until Allison returns with the now clean candleholders. Julia watches the girl self-consciously arrange and refill them, then wipe away all traces of fingerprints. Good girl. When Allison is done, Julia waves her over.

“I’m thinking we might need some extra help for Fridays and Saturdays, just until the New Year. Some nice girl with a pleasant voice who looks good in a black dress.”

Allison lights up. “I have a friend who would be perfect. If you like, I could ask her.”

“Have her stop by.” Julia bestows a gentle smile and a light touch on the arm. “You know what we’re looking for.” Once again, Allison would walk over hot coals for employer.

This is a warm-up for what happens when Gilly shows up after the lunch rush. Gillian Montrose is a student at the University of Surrey and lives right in Guildford, not all that far from Julia, but they actually met at one of Gideon’s services. Within a few weeks Gilly was dropping in at the shop at least once a week and emulating Julia’s clothes and mannerisms. Today she’s overwhelmed by a long grey skirt and sweater, and very upset. Julia sits her down with a cup of green tea.

“Here you are, poor dear. Give me your wrist.” Julia takes a sample vial of blended calming oil and runs the cool steel rollerball against Gilly’s wrists and temples.

“Oh, that feels so nice. What a lovely scent.”

“Lavender and bergamot. Now tell me all about it. Has Gideon upset you?” If Gideon has made this silly girl fall in love with him for sport, she will slay him. She’s warned him about keeping his hands off anyone useful.

“Oh, no, no! It’s not his fault at all,” Gilly sniffs a little, but continues bravely. “You know I’ve been spending a few evenings a week at the headquarters, just helping out. It’s always so pleasant and Father Gideon is so kind. I’ve set up a little office space in the kitchen so I can do the transcriptions on my PowerBook and answer the phone.”

And clean up Gideon’s grammar and run interference with his creditors, Julia adds to herself. “We’re so lucky to have you. Father Gideon thinks so too, even if he doesn’t say so often enough.”

“Thank you. I’ve been working so hard to get everything done ,and this awful man keeps calling and leaving messages and interrupting. It’s starting to interfere with work and he’s making threats.”

“This is the first I’ve heard of this, Gilly. Does Gideon know?”

“I played one of the messages for him and he just laughed. He’s still calling! I have to make sure the phones are turned off before services and back on when everyone leaves and I’m so nervous about forgetting.”

“What does the awful man want?”

“He wants Father Gideon to shut down the Order and renounce any claims to the Mega Wave technology and publicly apologize, and he… he…”

“Go on. It’s all right.”

“He says I'm a silly bitch and that Father Gideon is a charlatan and a, a crooked bastard, and… even worse things.”

Julia sighs. Of course Gideon would palm this nonsense off on someone entirely unequipped to deal with it. Of course she will have to step in.

“You did the right thing coming to me. Did you happen to get any information out of him? Name? A number?”

“Yes, I did, and I copied all his messages and made a log of his calls.” Gilly reaches into her bag and hands over a thick brown envelope. She really should be working in an office where she’d be useful and appreciated instead of cleaning up after Gideon, Julia reflects, but good help is hard to find, especially for free.

Julia takes the papers and presents Gilly with the floral arrangement. “Take it straight home and get some rest. Please promise you won’t go back to headquarters for a few days until I’ve settled things. Stop by here first.”

Gilly promises. She loves the flowers and feels so lucky to have someone like Julia in her life. Before leaving, Gilly buys two aromatherapy vials, some bath bombs, and a gold-plated elephant to clip on her handbag for luck and leaves a much happier woman than she walked in.

Julia sets the papers aside. She is not about to let Order business interrupt her work any more than necessary. She works on her order, readies the deposit for Allison, and waits on customers. Spa robes and supplements are selling particularly well. Her customers are all about feeling healthy and comfortable and above all, good about themselves, something to keep in mind while finishing the order. At four there’s a lull so she takes a few minutes to scan through Gilly’s typed notes. The Awful Man calls himself Kevin Pinker. Apparently he is angry with The Order for not being scientific enough? Or not consulting him? Or for existing? It isn’t clear. He’s clearly enraged, but he keeps leaving his number. Julia tells Allison to give her ten uninterrupted minutes and shuts herself in the tiny office.

After a few rings a woman answers. “Travelodge, good afternoon.” Well, that is a surprise. Julia sits up very straight, ready to unleash what she thinks of as her deep freeze voice.

Julia asks for Kevin Pinker and is put through immediately.

“Hello?” It’s a young man’s voice, irritated but unsure.

“Mr. Pinker, I am calling on behalf of The Order of the Golden Mu as a courtesy.” He starts sputtering, which she ignores. “This is your first and last warning. We have a log of your calls and recordings of all the messages you’ve left. There is no legal ambiguity here, and if you do not cease immediately we will have no choice but to involve the police.”

Silence, but only for a moment before the aggrieved whining starts.

“It’s your fault! I have tried being reasonable with you people, but that stupid woman refuses- ”

Julia cuts him off. “Mr. Pinker, you will watch your language and your tone if you wish to retain your liberty and stay out of a courtroom. You are in no position to make demands. If I choose to listen to you it will be because you have persuaded me to. You have sixty seconds. Go.”

She can hear him trying to steady his breathing. “Look. Please. I’m a scientist. I’ve been researching Mega Wave technology for three years. It is not something to be played with. This is a very powerful, natural force! It’s not a matter of religion or whatever you people - ”

“Tone, Mr. Pinker.”

“Christ! Listen! It is vital that you understand that this is a matter for a physicist - me - not a minister, or whatever title this Father Gideon claims. He’s making a mockery of my very important work. I need to secure funding and he’s treating it like a joke. It isn't fair”

“Time’s up.” Julia can almost hear him sag.

“I suppose you’re going to the police now.”

Julia considers for a moment. “Perhaps not. Some of what you say is interesting. Tell you what: I’ll be at The Mad Hatter in Guildford at seven this evening. If you can show up, calm and presentable, we can continue our conversation. If not, whatever follows you have brought upon yourself.”

“Fine. I know where that is.”

“Ask for Julia and be prepared to make your case.” She hangs up without waiting for his answer.

For a long moment Julia sits in her office collecting her own thoughts. This is the second time today she’s acted for The Order without consulting or informing Gideon, and it feels good. That little bit of theatre with Pinker is the most fun she’s had with Order business in, good lord, two years at least. Pinker sounds mad, but not dangerous, at least not yet.

Julia tidies what little mess there is in the office, and slips the store camera into her purse, inserting fresh batteries, just in case. She joins Allison in helping customers until the store closes at five, then she replenishes and straightens the displays herself while Allison wipes down the counters and changes the candles.

“It was a good day, Miss Grenfell.”

“One of many to come. Don’t forget to speak to your friend. Goodnight, my dear.”

***

Julia decides to drive to The Mad Hatter although it’s only a ten-minute walk away, and one she usually enjoys. If Pinker turns out to be too much of a pest she can make a quick getaway. She could have told Pinker to meet her at the shop, but it’s probably wise to meet in public, in a place where she’s known. The Mad Hatter is a pub, but it’s a very nice pub with a number of vegetarian items on the menu, and she makes a point of treating herself once every week or two. Julia stopped eating meat to save money in her final year of university and found the change agreed with her. She then dropped “white carbs” entirely and started limiting her intake of sugar and caffeine very strictly. Not even the horrible stress of the year following graduation was enough to make her backslide.

She parks close to the front door a little before six, greets the hostess and server by name and asks for a table with a view of the front door. When Tony brings her glass of Sauvignon Blanc, Julia asks him for a small favor. He takes the camera and promises to do as she asks. With an hour to kill before Pinker shows up - if he shows up at all - she orders the mezze plate. Instead of her usual book she’s brought a notebook and pen to keep herself on track. Julia draws a straight line down the middle of the page and makes notes. On one side, The Order seems stagnant. What she had once seen as a means to make her mark on the world is now little more than a social club, particularly for Gideon. She’s not the one with acolytes cleaning her house or warming her bed. Gideon himself has become restless and obstreperous. He’d hinted at a move to America with all the grace of a hound puppy, and if he’d been set on leaving, she wouldn’t have thrown herself in his way. Then he’s suggested that she come with him, sell her house and shop and start fresh. No mention of selling his house, although he’s the one with living parents and a regular allowance. If Gideon were to fall hard his family would enfold him in a protective cocoon hundreds of years in the making. She, conversely, is quite alone in the world, and if her very middle-class parents hadn’t been paranoid about life insurance she’d be living on a tightrope, which is why she hasn’t spoken to Gideon since his ridiculous proposition.

Julia’s food arrives, and after a few bites her mood improves enough to make notes on the other side of the page. The Order is still a source of amusement and is starting to attract a better class of people, people like Gilly. Gideon might be getting a little soft but he’s still attractive, capable of charm. She still believes in the goals of the order. It’s worth fighting for a world where society is united, where true merit is recognized, where the right people are in charge, and fools are not suffered. It would take some reformation, but it’s not too late for The Order to wield real influence. It’s not too late for her to jump ship, if she chooses to. Charisma has come a long way since she first rented a corner in the antique store where her mother used to work. She’s an established member of the community, perhaps enough to get involved in local politics. Tory, of course; no point in anything else in Guildford. She could go back to school and study law. That had been the plan before everything crashed around her.

Satisfied that her life is rich with options, Julia flips to a new page and sets the notebook aside. She finishes her dinner and has the table cleared well before 7 o’clock. She watches the door to see if she can guess Pinker’s identity. He’s certainly not the chubby man in the cardigan, nor the young man with a shopping bag. One long-haired man in his thirties seems promising, but he’s flagged down by a group of friends. Then Pinker enters the pub. It has to be him, thin, shaved head, heavy black eyebrows, cheap wire-framed glasses. Julia straightens her spine and pastes a serene smile on her face as he’s shown to her table.

“Julia?” He doesn’t snarl her name, not quite.

“Mr. Pinker. So lovely to meet you. Please sit down. I will pay for exactly one drink, so order wisely.”

Pinker appears to have as much experience with women as Julia has with physics. He says he’ll have a pint of anything and doesn’t bother asking for her surname or her credentials. He seems to have assumed that she is a solicitor for The Order, which is fine with Julia. She orders another glass of wine and Firkin ale for Pinker. Tony brings the drinks and takes her payment and tip immediately. He pulls the digital camera out of his pocket.

“Please look at the waiter Mr. Pinker.” Pinker does so and Tony takes several shots and returns the camera to its owner. Ignoring Pinker’s bubbling outrage, Julia puts it in her purse and zips it closed. “A simple precaution. You understand.” Pinker stares at her for a moment, glances around, and continues speaking. She has to give him credit for his single-mindedness.

Julia takes notes and says very little. She doesn’t have to, because Kevin Pinker talks as if he’s been storing it up for a year. He’s even brought a prop, a binder full of clippings, notes, sketches and documents. He apparently really is a scientist of sorts, with a master’s degree from the University of Lincoln. He is, or was, undertaking a doctorate in medical physics at Newcastle. She gathers that there’s been some difficulty with his final research project, which he attributes to small-minded advisors. Julia hasn’t taken a science class since she was a teenager, so most of what Pinker says is babble to her ear, but she recognizes certain terms from her own reading: arc generator, higher cerebral waves, nerve centre control, mental frequency.

“May I?” Julia asks, taking the binder from his hands. She leafs through, noting that Pinker received his master’s degree in 1990 and was admitted to Newcastle in 1992. She recognizes many of the newspaper and magazine clippings. They’re all part of The Order’s own folk history of the Mega Wave gathered over the last few years. The accounts are second and third hand, testimony from anonymous sources claiming to be with the police or the government. Every available book about The Work is like this as well; even the best quality research is riddled with speculation and unreliable sources.

Julia turns to the sketches and her idle thoughts float away. They’re surprisingly neat and well-drawn, with titles and labels in tiny, precise script: hypno-disk; electromagnetic curtain; telecephaloscope. Pinker is still talking, but his voice seems very far away as she looks at the drawings. Finally, he winds down and waits for her to react. She takes her time with it.

“Mr. Pinker, I see that we’ve misjudged you. It’s clear that you are serious about continuing the work of the great Jonathan Septimus, just as much as we are, perhaps more given your expertise. It’s an admirable calling, but others have tried before you.”

“Dr. Evangely, yes, I know.” Pinker is no longer hostile.

Julia nods slowly. “He was the last person to get so far. It’s been more than forty years.”

“But I’ve reproduced the hypno-disk. That’s part of my research project, but the testing protocols-”

“Wait. You’ve reproduced… you mean you have blueprints?”

“I have a prototype! It works, I tell you.”

Julia takes a good look at the man, assessing his intense expression, his baggy shirt and shabby coat, his unshaven chin, and the dark circles under his eyes. He believes what he’s saying, she’s sure of that much. Is he crazy, though? Or rather, how crazy is he?

“You’ve used it.”

Pinker chews on his lip. “Yes, a few times. My landlord was pestering me about back rent. I had to put him off… and it worked! It worked three times, but then he put my things outside and changed the locks when I was out.”

“And there was nobody you could ask for help?

Pinker shakes his head. It cost him something to admit that. Julia decides that his effort will not go unrewarded, and takes the initiative for the third time today.

“Can you cover your room to the end of the week?”

“Yes. I’ve sold some things.”

“Good.” Julia rips out a fresh sheet and prints out Gideon’s address. “Bring your hypno-disk and show up at Headquarters at 6 p.m.”

“What for?”

Julia stares at him calmly until he drops the petulant look. “You must have noticed by now that you cannot do this alone. At the very least, we can offer you a stimulating evening. You may find that we can offer much more. Do yourself a favor and show up looking and acting your best.” She watches the expressions that cross his face. Pinker would be a bad poker player. It’s obvious that he’d like to tell her to go to hell, to turn on his heel and walk out, head high. It’s equally obvious that he’s desperate. She softens her voice, switching from deep freeze to kind teacher. “If nothing else, Kevin, you’ll find friends.”

“I’ll be there, okay? I want to see this Gideon anyway.”

“Then I look forward to seeing you again. And if there’s a problem between now and then leave a message with headquarters - politely.”

***

When Julia calls late Tuesday, Gideon assumes that she’s accepted his apology and is prepared to play nice again. Instead, she slams him with demands that he change his Saturday sermon and welcome some nutter to the party. He tries to laugh it off but she’s not having it. Apparently the fellow who scared poor little Gilly is an actual scientist? Someone who might be helpful to the Great Work? Gideon has more or less given up on the Great Work, to tell the truth. All his energy has been devoted to gathering followers, with their tithes and their helpful ways. That isn’t enough for Julia, of course, and if she thinks this Pinker can recreate Dr. Septimus’s technology, there might be something to it. For the first time in years Gideon considers what a world with the Mega Wave technology would be like; so orderly, so simple, everyone in their proper place, super soldiers on guard, a productive, contented citizenry, thought leaders in charge. It’s a lovely dream, but just a dream, unless Julia is right. He might as well give this Pinker a chance, because otherwise he’ll have to find someone to run else to run the practical side of things. Julia isn’t as much fun as she used to be, but he’d hate to have to work without her.

Julia’s little protege, as Gideon thinks of him, shows up a few minutes before six on the appointed day carrying a ratty duffle bag. At least Julia hasn’t been swayed by good looks, Gideon thinks. Pinker is a small, thin man, slightly shorter than Julia in her heeled boots. He's dressed in all black, faded and mismatched. There’s something about him, though, an intensity, a suppressed energy that flashes through his black eyes. Gideon shakes his hand warmly and thanks him for being their honored guest. Julia then leads Pinker to the kitchen where Gilly is making coffee and waiting to meet the “Awful Man.” Pinker manages to choke out an apology which Gilly accepts with a martyred air. Gideon doesn’t go for the small, fluffy type personally, but Pinker is clearly kicking himself for leaving all those nasty messages. Gilly hands the man a cup of coffee with her nose in the air, and he apologizes again, more sincerely this time.

“Thank you so much for putting your differences aside,” says Julia. “We’re all on the same team, aren’t we?” Gilly and Pinker agree without enthusiasm.

The plan is for Julia to sit with Pinker away from the congregation. He’s not one of them, after all, just a special guest, an observer. Gideon will give his sermon, introduce the guest, and ask for volunteers to test out the hypno-disk. Julia has checked it out and it at least looks like a real piece of equipment. If it doesn’t work, they’ll all have a laugh. If it does work, well, that would change everything. Just in case, Gideon has hidden away a bottle of champagne and some MDMA, and made himself particularly beautiful.

Julia is pleased with both Gilly and Pinker just now. He’d managed to sound like an actual human with her and she’d accepted his apology with dignity. Gideon looks better than he has in months. He’s probably lost a two pounds just from laying off the booze for a few days, and his hair is especially lustrous. Has he used a rinse or something? The congregants file in and mill about. It looks like attendance will be around 40 this evening; nothing to celebrate, but at least they’re holding steady.

Gilly flashes the lights at 6:50 and the order members take their seats. Julia takes Pinker by the arm and leads him to the two armchairs in the corner. When everyone is sitting down, the lights snap off for a second, then a spotlight appears at the pulpit and Gideon takes his place. Julia listens as Gideon hits the points she laid out for him. He lightly touches on fellowship and their shared vision of a strong, unified society, then gets to the meat of his sermon. God has worked through prophets, artists, playwrights, and statesmen, Gideon says. Above all, he works through scientists. These modern prophets are doing miracles that we take for granted.

Gideon elaborates on the miracles of technology, from cures for cancer to telecommunications. The listeners laugh when he tells them that they all have a miracle in their pockets, but the message is getting across. He winds up by praising the work of great men, modern prophets: Edison, Tesla, Lovelace, Evangely, and above all, Jonathan Septimus. Gideon raises his hand and the lights come up. Gideon has a surprise this evening. A man of science has joined us. Will you all please welcome Kevin Pinker, who will demonstrate his own miracle.

Julia nudges Pinker, who jumps to his feet. He’s dead white and his mouth is a tight line in his face, but he picks up the duffle and walks to the front of the room without hesitation. He unzips it, pulls out the hypno-disk, and places it on his head. The crowd is getting excited, they’ve all heard of this device, but to see it! Gideon places his hand reassuringly on Pinker’s shoulder and asks for volunteers. There’s a second of silence, then a dozen hands shoot up. Gideon motions for two young men to come up to the front, and they jump over the benches, laughing.

“Jeremy, you be the subject. Andy, you be ready to catch him,” Gideon says. If this doesn’t work, he will have the crowd turn on Pinker with a vengeance, but he hopes it won’t come to that.

Jeremy stands very upright and stares at the disk. Pinker presses a button on the side of the headband and it begins to spin. The room is completely quiet for the count of one, two, three… Jeremy swoons into his friend’s arms and the congregants applaud wildly. A few members rise to help Andy carry Jeremy away.

“Anyone else want to experience genuine Septimus technology?” Gideon calls out. Five more people line up, swoon, and are carried away, then five more. The effect only lasts about ten minutes, and once they recover the subjects are laughing and chatting. Nearly half the congregants take the test. They report that it feels like going under for surgery, or blacking out drunk, but they all feel fine now. Nobody seems worried about side effects, which is convenient because Pinker has no idea if there are any.

Fellowship is cut off after an hour this evening because Father Gideon needs to meet with “our scientist friend.” Everyone leaves happy and tithes are higher than they’ve been in a year. Julia joins him in thanks and farewells, singling out Gilly for special attention. She had been the last to test the hypno-disk and seems almost high on the experience. She shakes Pinker’s hand and giggles, her grudge forgotten.

***

When the last of the clean-up crew leaves, Gideon finds three clean glasses and pours the champagne. The pills are in his pocket. For someone who has just had a smashing success, Pinker doesn’t seem that happy. He takes the champagne, but immediately gets to business, before Julia can even finish congratulating him. He wants to see the notes Julia has mentioned, now please, talk can wait. Julia had predicted this reaction. She goes to fetch the Book of Mu while Gideon turns on the charm. In his experience, socially awkward men always want to feel like part of the in-group, but half the time they don’t realize it. Pinker seems like a particularly sad case, a man who doesn’t even know when he’s being flattered.

Julia returns with the book and accepts her glass of champagne. Gideon caresses the front cover and turns the pages past his sermons, past the clippings, to Evangely’s notes. Finally, Pinker shows some interest. He stares at the faded pages, struggling to decipher the writing behind the protective plastic. The little man reaches for the book as if to pluck the precious notes from the sleeve, but Gideon snaps the book shut.

“No! I must have those notes,” Pinker cries out. He looks from Julia to Gideon. They’re both smiling at him as if this isn’t even important. If only he had brought the hypno-disk, but that’s in his duffle bag. They’d seen to that. He could snatch it, try to run. Pinker lunges for the book, but Gideon blocks him and in two strides has pushed the scientist against the wall. Pinker twists, tries to kick, but Gideon’s full weight is against him. He can only wriggle and stomp his feet at nothing. Pinker is helpless as Gideon grabs his wrists hard enough to hurt.

“All right! All right! Let me go!”

Gideon doesn’t let him go, but he does relax his grip very slightly.

“Calm down, Mr. Pinker. Everything that is supposed to happen is happening. Hush, now. You will see the notes in good time.”

Julia is holding two glasses of champagne. “You were doing so well, Kevin. Be civil. Have some champagne and talk it over with us. We want to share everything with you, but you have to cooperate.”

Pinker stops his ineffectual struggle. He can’t fight them both. Hell, he can’t even fight Gideon. For now, he’ll have to be a good boy. He leans his head against the wall.

“Fine. Just let me go.”

“That’s better,” says Gideon, making no move to release him. “Relax, take deep breaths.” Pinker breaths. He just wants to leave. Oh, god, Julia knows where he’s staying. Maybe he can sleep in his car tonight.

“You’re so tense, so upset,” Gideon continues. Pinker’s eyes widen as Gideon clasps both palms to the shorter man’s temples, and leans down until their foreheads touch, as if he’s trying to press his thoughts into Pinker’s head. “I will give you my personal assurance, Mr. Pinker” he whispers. “If you follow my lead this evening your life will change for the better in ways you can’t imagine. You only have to be open to new experiences, and as a scientist, surely you see the value in that?”

Pinker presses his back against the wall. He can see Julia over Gideon’s shoulder. She’s not playing, and it’s not like his life can get much worse, is it? “Tell me what you want.”

“Oh, Mr. Pinker, it’s not what I want, it’s what we create,” Gideon finally lets him go with a smile. Pinker takes the champagne from Julia and finds himself raising his glass with the others.

“To the future,” Gideon toasts. He drinks, then reaches into his pocket and displays three small blue pills on the palm of his hand. “Tell me, Kevin, what comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘esoteric communion’?”

Chapter Text

From Sugar Hill’s instruction hill one can see the small resort town below, as charming as a toy Christmas village. The runs are flanked by trees freshly frosted with glittering snow. Below the vivid blue sky the experienced skiers shoot down the slopes, tiny at this distance but clearly silhouetted against the gleaming peaks. Erik takes it all in and decides that downhill skiing is a frivolous sport and a massive waste of time. He still pays close attention to the lesson, of course, because by the end of the afternoon he will be going down this hill, on his feet or on his ass.

This is opening weekend and the resort is packed. Erik wouldn’t have been able to take a lesson at all if they hadn’t made up an extra class to catch the overflow. Patty Banerjee had offered to teach Erik herself, but they’re only staying for the day and it wouldn’t be fair to monopolize her time. Besides, it may be more acceptable for men to be vulnerable these days, but there’s no way in hell he’s going to look like a fool in front of Patty. The group lesson is for new skiers 13 and older, but luckily Erik is the youngest there; he doesn’t want to look foolish in front of kids either. The other students are mostly couples, and a small group of women in their early twenties, all friends. One of the couples is a pair of silver foxes in their sixties, the kind of fun, fit seniors Old Ivan would have made a point of charming only two years ago. Of course they mention that their granddaughter is already on the lift. Good lord.

Erik snaps back to attention. The instructor, a young guy named Rog, has explained their agenda and goals and is now talking about equipment.

“Why do we need to really know our gear before we start?” Rog asks.

“Because inadequate or poorly maintained materiel can kill you,” Erik answers automatically. God knows he’s learned this lesson again and again.

“That’s right, bro! Good to see you taking this serious!”

Rog continues with the lesson and Erik checks his boots and poles and all the rest of his rental outfit. It all seems sound enough, almost new. The lesson continues and they learn to fall safely, to turn, to slow down and stop, to use ski lifts correctly. The lifts are what incur Erik’s harshest judgment. He has skied before, actually, but that was cross-country in the line of duty, and a long time ago; it was a matter of covering ground. The idea of being carried to the top of a mountain, sliding down, and repeating the process? Too silly for words.

And they’re off, ushered down the short first slope by Rog. It isn’t that hard, at least not when you’re going ten feet at a time. Erik makes some experimental turns, picks up speed, slows down, comes to a stop. It’s pretty intuitive, actually. On the next drop he falls over sideways, but is able to get back on his feel quickly. They go down the teaching run a bit at a time. Erik practices relaxing his joints, getting into a rhythm. The last shot is longer and as he reaches the end Erik wonders if there has to be a point to every activity. Besides, he’s getting good exercise and fresh air. They practice getting on and off the school lift, then ascend to the top of the practice slope to try again and again until the whole class is reasonably comfortable at the absolute beginner level.

Then the group takes the lift up a level to Casey’s Quad, the first challenge. Erik mentally reviews the slowing and stopping techniques, and starts down. The sun bounces off the packed trail as he meets each bump and turn. He controls his descent, following Rog closely. The bottom is in sight and it feels a little like flying. This is the point of skiing. Erik goes into a slight tuck and points his skis straight down, speeding up right to the end when he snowploughs to a stop.

Everyone has made it down in one piece. The new skiers cheer and hug each other. Rog hands out cheesy badges to the students, shaking each hand. Erik hears his name whooped out from a distance and realizes that Dev, Patty, and Sarah were watching. Thank god he didn’t wipe out.

“Come on, Li’l Cuz! Michael’s waiting!’ Sarah gives him an affectionate squeeze and they hurry to return his skis and boots. Michael doesn’t ski at all but he was happy to hang around Calico Village for the day and drive the Wattell minivan. They pick up Amy and J.T. at the snowshoe trails and continue to the village for dinner as the bright sky dims to twilight. Dev enlists Erik to persuade the lovebirds to try skiing next time, but they prefer sports that allow for hand-holding and conversation. Amy wants everyone to join them for ice skating instead, so they argue in a friendly way until they get to the restaurant.

“Erik, I cannot believe you ordered the turkey dinner,” says Patty. “You literally had the same meal two days ago.” She’s been teasing him a little more since she heard that he defended her brother.

“And it was so good I could have it once a week. Pick on Michael, he’s the one having pancakes.”

“They have pancakes?” Amy squeaks. Her excitement sets off laughter in the others for no other reason than that they are all young and it’s a holiday and they can have pancakes for dinner if they want to. Most of the talk is about places to ski and skate. Sugar Hill is fine and has the advantage of being close, but there are much better places up north. Erik mentions that he’ll be going to Vermont after Christmas. Are there any good places near Shelburne? Only dozens, it seems.

By the time the food arrives there are three distinct conversations going on between seven people. Erik uses the noise as cover to ask Dev something he’s been wondering about for days. Has he heard anything from Caleb?

Dev whispers that Caleb called twice. “I told him to go to hell until he’s talked to you.”

“Did he apologize for wussing out when Jason said that to you?”

“Yeah, but screw that. I’m not the one he tried to get expelled or probably arrested!”

Erik nods. “Thanks, I appreciate that. And I will be talking to him.”

“Let me know if he decides to stop being a huge bag of shit.”

They end their private talk and join in the more important discussion as to which desert is best. On the way home they’re all a little quieter, partly from fatigue but mostly because Michael can’t drive if it’s too loud. Erik has time to reflect. Interesting that Dev and J.T. realized right away that Caleb must have given away Erik’s locker combo. What’s more, they see the betrayal as a real crime, not just against Erik personally, but against society and the principles of justice, principles which are supposed to protect Erik as much as any other citizen. Charming, really, although Erik knows that if he weren’t a rich kid with Andre, Marcus, and Maddy behind him, he’d be thrown to the wolves of law and order in a heartbeat, and Dev and J.T. wouldn’t be around to be indignant about it. Then Patty and Sara start singing along to “Shoop” on the radio and Erik dismisses everything serious from his mind for now.

***

This was the first year Andre and Maricella hosted Thanksgiving at their home, and it was a success, except for a few timing issues and a bit of sniping over Maricella’s decision to offer a vegetarian casserole as a main dish in addition to ham and turkey. Even with turkey soup made and stored in the freezer, the fridge is still full of leftovers.

“What do you think? Sandwiches and pie for dinner?” Maricella interrupts Andre’s contemplation of the open fridge.

“And wine. There’s the little bottle of Prosecco from your cousin still unopened.”

“Sure. Miranda is sacked out. We might have to make the switch from crib to bed soon. She’s getting a little too acrobatic.”

“We’ll have to tie bells to her to make sure she doesn’t run around all night.”

Andre pulls all the ingredients out of the fridge and sets out plates and glasses while Maribella starts slicing up ham and turkey.“Hey, do you have to call the kid tonight?”

“No, he called me this afternoon. The skiing went well. He ended up enjoying it just as you predicted.”

“I bet he was good on his first try, too.”

“He says he did okay, so yes. And he’s going to buy his own skis, so obviously it took. He made a big point of thanking me for intervening with the school.”

“Of course he did.” Maribella takes a sip. “Mmmm, nummy. Maddy called me today too. He made a big hairy deal of thanking them for looking after him when he was sick. This is what happens when you hire people to raise your kid; you end up with a weirdo who doesn’t know what a society is.”

“He’s learning.”

“I don’t know. Sometimes I think he sees everyone else as ‘the help.'”

“No, no. I know what you mean, but you have to remember that he’s only really lived with people who were paid to be with him and that’s the etiquette. He knows this is different. Actually, I think he loves the whole Wattell family, and just hasn’t figured that out yet."

How are they, anyway?”

“Doing great! Marcus is working on a synagogue project that’s going to keep him busy to the end of time. Maddy finally sent in the proofs and now she thinks she missed something, of course. She wanted to make sure we were still good about keeping an eye on Erik in Vermont. Of course I said it was no trouble. Like Erik is going to get up to anything.”

“You can’t just dismiss the possibility. He’s no angel.”

“No, he’s not, but he’s smart. If he gets into trouble we probably won’t even hear about it until it blows up into something huge. That kid needs moral mentoring, not babysitting.”

Andre shrugs. “Vermont will be fun, though. If nothing else, we’ll have gorgeous, snowy weather, sleigh rides in the moonlight, fireplace in the room.”

“So romantic. Just us, a toddler, your teenaged ward, a security guard…”

“We’ll have a great time, just like Erik had fun skiing. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

***

For the first time in their long, long relationship, Francis Blake decides to indulge his dear professor in an old-fashioned Scottish Christmas. They had talked about going to to Bali or perhaps Switzerland, but between work and renovations they haven’t had much time to plan a big trip. They’d also talked about staying in London, but Craigallan Lodge doesn’t have a tenant yet, and Pitlochry is lovely any time of the year. It will mean a quiet Christmas, but there’s whiskey tasting, Hogmanay, Christmas concerts, maybe even a bit of skiing and riding. This isn’t exactly nostalgia for Philip - Christmases in Simla were very different - but he grew up hearing about his mother’s treasured memories of the area. Besides, now is a good time to get away from London, particularly for Blake.

As a consultant, Blake has a bit more freedom than the typical MI5 agent, but he isn’t in the club the way he was in his first youth. Officially, he is kept fully informed and treated with every appropriate protocol, unofficially, he’s not so sure. As he’s told Mortimer many times, the agency seems to be preoccupied with the IRA to the point of giving short shrift to what he sees as rising threats to minorities within the U.K., attacks on newspapers and places of worship, threats to places known for queer clientele. Of course he acknowledges that the IRA is by far the biggest terrorist threat right now, but why not acknowledge new internal enemies? Then there’s the loss of deference. He’s not quite treated like a raw recruit - his expertise is far too apparent for that - but there’s always that bit of surprise, the tendency to explain, the assumption that he doesn’t know the history. Only a few people know the truth of Project Faust, so Blake can hardly blame people who assume he’s in his twenties; doesn’t mean he has to like it.

Blake cannot swear to this, but he thinks his apparent youth is why the Golden Mu file was almost dismissed. Director Montrose had listened politely enough, but it was clear he thought the Mega Wave technology was a quaint relic of the days of high adventure, an obsession for a bunch of harmless weirdos. It didn't help that Montrose is vaguely acquainted with some of Fox-Devereux’s people. They’re not an illustrious family, but they’re respectable in that nobody has questioned them for a century. Young Gideon is a shady wastrel and has had some brushes with the law, but nothing his family couldn’t fish him out of. Montrose promises to tell the local police to look out for anything untoward and passes the file on to Mark Dalton, a junior agent with an interest in everything odd.

Blake is frustrated but not surprised. Mortimer is surprised, but he, too, has experienced the downside of looking young.

“It’s too bad, Francis, but they’ll be on guard now at least. Surely they can’t have forgotten the havoc Septimus created on his own, and then the Evangely madness. They don’t have to be sane or competent to be dangerous, and now they have a scientist on board.”

“They are fully aware, and yet… the best I could do was to exact a promise that they’d keep me informed. Oh, and they’re going to find a way to obliquely warn our little American friend. There are CIA connections that can get word out.”

“Really? Then you’ve given up on the idea that Erik Ostrovsky is Olrik?”

“Not at all, I just remember what happens when the Mega Wave and Olrik collide. For whatever reason, the combination is fatal. I would be astonished if Fox-Devereux and his gang of nutters made the connection, but I’d never forgive myself if they somehow stumbled upon the perfect guinea pig. And if I’m wrong, and Erik Ostrovsky is merely Olrik’s biological son or, for that matter, a completely unrelated person, well, he will need protection, won’t he?”

“Of course he will! Nobody should be a victim of that technology, not even Olrik, and not just because he was so damned dangerous as The Yellow M. The thought of bombarding a boy of fifteen with that ray is too horrible to contemplate. You’re still keeping an eye on him?”

“An occasional check, just to be safe.”

“And?”

Blake sighs. Philip has taken to teasing him now and then about the danger posed by a skinny, big-nosed teenager forming his own crime syndicate.

“Nothing remarkable, but nothing that clears him in my mind. Good academic performance, some athletic distinction, a talent for languages, no serious rule infractions. He won a costume contest, of all things.”

“And Olrik was a master of disguise! Conclusive.”

“Very amusing, my dear.”

“It’s only because I worry about you, Francis. You know that.” Mortimer reaches out for Blake’s hand and pulls him close. “And you know you can only take this so far.”

“Of course I do. It’s not like I can have a boy in high school arrested for crimes against humanity. If Olrik has undergone the rejuvenation process he’s bought himself a fresh start, perhaps at a high cost, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“All right then. Since there’s nothing you can do, will you promise to put this whole thing out of your mind, at least for our holiday.”

“I can certainly make you that promise, Philip. You deserve nothing less.”

***

Erik is setting out his school clothes and checking his catch-up assignments Sunday evening when he gets a call on his mobile. It’s Caleb. It’s urgent that he explains something to Erik, please listen, this is important.

“So urgent you waited more than a week to call.”

“Jesus, dude. Give me a break.”

“Give me a reason.”

“I didn’t set you up.”

“Sure, Caleb. Jason’s little minion guessed my locker combination. Or maybe Dev gave it to him”

“I didn’t! It’s not like that. Can I come over? I need to tell you what’s going on.”

“No, you can’t. I’m hanging out with the family. If you really want to talk we can meet after school. I have Anti-Gravity until 4:30. You can meet me after that, at the small gym.”

“Yeah okay. I have tutoring until at least four anyway. Thanks, man.”

“I’m only promising to listen ” Erik ends the call while Caleb is still speaking and puts his phone back on the charger. He wants to see Caleb’s face as he tells his story. Of course there is a scenario where Caleb is more or less innocent, maybe more than one. He can afford to take the high road and let Caleb prove himself, and Caleb has no hope of deceiving an experienced interrogator. He packs his book bag and goes to join Maddy and Marcus downstairs, confident in his course of action.

***

By the end of first period Erik’s plan is out the window. For starters, he encounters Jason in the hallway and gets the full brunt of an absurdly menacing stare. The implied threat isn’t as interesting as the fact that Beaudoin is alone. According to J.T. it was Tim Oersted (“the skinny one with the eyebrow scar”) who was arrested and expelled, but Ben Spencer (that would be the big, pouty kid then) has been forbidden from hanging out with Jason from now on. Oersted hasn’t implicated Jason, but rumour has it that Beaudoin senior has him on a short leash for being friends with a degenerate drug dealer. No doubt, Jason is more resentful than ever and will probably try another stupid revenge ploy, which means he’ll have to strike first. Erik is also informed that he will not be meeting with Caleb alone. J.T. and Dev want to be there as well “for backup.” That seems like overkill to Erik, but okay. He isn’t the suspect here, so maybe witnesses would be good. This is also a trial of sorts: let Caleb be judged by a jury of his peers.

It’s nice to be back in school, Erik decides. He’s surprised at how many people say they’re glad he’s over his illness. Apparently being framed for a crime has made him a minor celebrity. There’s a lot of chatter about the holidays, the coming sports season, and so much gossip. It looks like Oersted’s family is pulling strings and he won’t suffer any serious consequences. He’ll have to take a class on ethics and attend New York Military Academy. No wonder he didn’t flip on Beaudoin. Everyone gets a pack of assignments back as the teachers have been busy grading all week. Three more weeks until finals! Erik is sure he’ll get on the honor roll again, maybe with a special distinction. There are a lot of bright kids in his grade, but he’s the best in the language track, no contest.

At lunch Amy is talking a mile a minute about her family’s plan to go to the U.S. Virgin Islands for Christmas when it hits Erik that he might actually celebrate the holiday this year. As head of Redwing he’d observed the minimal niceties and, of course, and there was always an assistant to send out cards and gifts. Michael Shaw had a particular knack for this, but now Erik has no idea what to do. Marcus and Maddy are excited about their kids coming home, but they haven’t said anything about their customs. Maybe they go to Midnight Mass. Maybe they go carolling. He’ll have to talk to them and start making a list.

Erik manages to put the Caleb issue very nearly out of his mind until Anti-Gravity club. He’s at the top of the climbing wall going sideways when he spots his friends waiting outside. He takes his time completing his climb, making his way across the wall and down without a hitch. At 4:30 the climbers clean up and do their “yay team” handshake. Erik and his friends are quiet until they’re off school grounds, when Dev breaks the ice.

“All, right, Caleb. Convince us.”

“I didn’t give Jason Erik’s locker combination, I swear to god.”

“But you know how he got it.”

Caleb deflates. “Yeah, but I fucked up. I didn’t do it on purpose.”

Caleb’s story is that after Jason got in trouble for saying the “shitty thing to Dev” he’d followed his buddy (“your dealer” says J.T.) to confront him. They’d quarrelled over the slur. Jason said it was no big deal and he didn't deserve a suspension for a joke, and Caleb wanted an apology to smooth everything over. He and Jason didn’t talk again until Thursday after school. Jason’s suspension was over by then and he’d apologize to Dev if Caleb would be the peacemaker. There’d been a lot of weed, and booze, and something else. They’d been having a good time but at some point in the evening Caleb passed out in the Beaudoin rec room. He didn’t wake up until 5 a.m. Friday morning, sick as a dog. He’d grabbed his backpack and snuck home, creeping into his bed and staying there all day, not even bothering to call in sick.

J.T. notes that none of this explains how Erik ended up with a bag of coke in his locker.

“When I heard about the coke I went through my backpack. I had all your locker combos written down, and it was definitely folded wrong. Jason must have got it while I was passed out, but I didn’t give it to him.”

This was pretty much the scenario Erik had imagined. He has his friends’ locker combinations written in an address book also. They all do, the idea being that they can get things for each other “just in case.” J.T. and Amy treat their lockers as community property, as do a number of Silver Birch students, although they are specifically told not to. There is another question though.

“Show me,” Erik says, gesturing at the backpack.

Caleb rifles through his pack, unzipping an inside pocket and handing him a wrinkled sheet of looseleaf.

“This doesn’t have my locker number,” he notes, handing the paper back.

“Tim knew. I’ve been leaving my tenor sax in your locker sometimes.”

“Without telling me?”

“It wasn’t anything bad! It’s just for fourth period so I don’t have to carry it around so much. Your locker is almost empty most of the time anyway. How was I supposed to know what he’d do?”

They walk on. Erik believes Caleb’s story; it’s simple and stupid and pretty much what he’d expected. Dev and J.T. may be convinced as well, but they’re not happy.

“Are you still hanging out with Jason?” Dev asks.

“No, not since Thursday.”

“Did you find someone else to sell you coke?” J.T. wants to know.

Caleb scowls at him, but answers. “No. I haven’t done anything except a little weed since… since that night.”

The boys say nothing. Erik wonders if Dev and J.T. had discussed this as a strategy before the meeting. If so, it’s quite clever. Their questions hang in the air until Caleb can’t stand it.

“Look, I’m sorry, okay! Dev, I’m really sorry I didn’t tell Jason to fuck himself when he said that gross shit to you. I thought he was just being a jerk, not really a racist. And I’m sorry that he set you up. I didn’t think anyone would do that. I’m just really, really fucking sorry.”

They’re nearly at the Wattell house now. It’s almost entirely dark and light sleet is falling. Erik decides to make his ruling and get home.

“I can’t speak for Dev or J.T. but I believe you. I’m really not impressed though.”

“Yeah, fair.”

“You need to stop the weed and the booze and everything else. Make your parents get you some help. I won’t trust you until you’re clean, if you want the truth.”

“Me neither,” says J.T.

Dev nods. “It’s not just about us. You’re going to end up in military school like Oersted if you don’t get your shit together.”
Caleb makes some mumbling noises, but Erik isn’t paying attention. “You got a lucky break this time, Caleb. If I’d been charged I’d be coming after you right now. You could have OD’d or worse. I wouldn’t press my luck if I were you, but it’s your business.” He gestures at his turn-off. “I need to get home. You guys sort out whatever you want and let me know.”

***

Caleb is welcomed back into the fold, provisionally. In a move Erik finds absurd but rather admirable, Dev accompanies Caleb when he talks to Candice Moore about his drug use. After her shock and anger - tempered by having her son’s friend in the room - she agrees to get some help for the family, but only after she yells at Bob Moore for an hour or two. J.T. and Dev decide that to support their friend, they’ll agree to a “dare” for Caleb’s sobriety milestones. After ten days J.T. does a handstand in the cafeteria. After 20, Dev asks Charity McGovern to see Ghost in the Shell with him. Erik doesn’t have time for this nonsense, so when Dev suggests that he take a dare if Caleb makes it through the holidays without screwing up, he mumbles something affirmative and goes back to studying.

Of course, Erik will be happy if Caleb gets off the drugs and he can stop hearing about this drama, but he’s mostly focused on his studies, his family, and his new side project. Maddy has explained that they do exchange presents, but only within the immediate family, and kids are expected to stay within a $50 limit. There will be a big dinner with some extended family members on the 25th and a casual open house on the 26th. This means that in addition to his studies, club, social life, and sports, Erik has to do some Christmas shopping. Fortunately, this is something he can combine with spying on Jason Beaudoin. With Marcus’s help he sends Andre a bottle of good Scotch and spots Beaudoin walking downtown alone. He finds an old-fashioned toy airplane for Miranda, and discovers that Beaudoin goes straight from school to his father’s studio in a nondescript office building. Blake’s 7 videos for Michael, a hat and scarf set for Sarah, and the knowledge that while Jason is at the studio, the number of visitors increases tenfold, and none of them stay for more than a few minutes. After assembling a stash of choice chocolate for Marcus, he finds a good vantage point at the Merrill Cafe across the street from the radio station and determines that Beaudoin takes delivery on Mondays beside the dumpster out back.

So what to do with this information? Erik decides to go a little further than the situation strictly calls for. He rationalizes that he needs to keep his hand in the spy game, and as Andre always warns him, boredom is the enemy. He creates a disguise from thrift store sweats which he perfumes with cigarette smoke and beer. To disguise his features he creates a head of shaggy bleached hair from a standard woman’s wig and a ratty brown moustache - nothing like the tidy one he sported back in the day - with good quality costume hair. The hardest part is finding a place to change, but there’s a mall downtown that rents storage lockers by the hour and has reasonably private stalls in the main floor men’s room.

On December 8 Erik goes to the Willowbrook Shopping Center immediately after school and slips into his disguise. The moustache is perfect, especially when he stipples in a few pimples and a distracting mole on his chin. The wig looks a little too suburban mom until he messes it up and adds a New York Rangers stocking cap. He stashes his own neatly folded clothes in the locker and walks the four blocks to the station.

He doesn’t have to act much to look furtive as he steps into the main lobby and takes the elevator to the third floor. WCFS (We Care for Souls) FM is more upscale than Erik had expected, with good quality furniture and original art on walls. There’s a larger-than-life portrait of a grey-haired, wide-grinning man who can only be Beaudoin Sr. There’s no sign of Jason, just a middle-aged woman doing paperwork and a slick looking man of about thirty who intercepts him a few steps from the entry.

“Can I help you, young man?” He’s very friendly and a bit too close. Erik roughens his voice and stammers out that he’s looking for Jason. No, he’s not a friend exactly, but he has to talk to Jason about something private. He’d rather not leave a message, no.

“Were you perhaps looking to make a donation and a blessing request?” The guy has a pretty good grip on Erik’s shoulder. Ah, so that’s how they’re doing it.

“Yeah, that’s what I meant. I want to donate, um, fifty bucks?”

“Would you be interested in a calming blessing or an exhortation to action?”

“Uhhhhh.”

“We could also arrange a blessing of togetherness and joy if you’re willing to come back Monday.”

“I’ll take the action thing.” He hands over $50 in grubby bills and receives a pamphlet. Before he can open it Mr. Slick propels him out the door and into the hallway. Erik stuffs the pamphlet in his pocket and doesn’t examine it until he’s back in the Willowbrook men’s room. It’s a pretty standard tract calling for young men to fill the void in their lives with Jesus instead of pleasures of the flesh. The most interesting part is the tiny plastic bag of white powder glued to the center page. Erik opens the bag very carefully for a test. It’s bitter and numbs his gums a little. He’s no expert, but it seems to be pure enough for the price. He dumps the coke down the toilet and changes into his own clothes. He wipes away the makeup and stuffs the entire disguise into a plastic shopping bag. Before leaving the mall he walks around a bit and has the good luck to find a silver scales of justice brooch that will make a fine gift for Maribella, and a pretty hair clasp for Maddy.

Erik feels he’s done a decent job of Christmas shopping, but he’s not happy about the revenge project. Destroying Jason’s little business personally would require more time and effort than he’s willing to put in, and he doesn’t want to break the law, not in this incarnation. He could arrange to get Beaudoin crossed up with his suppliers, but he doesn’t want to get the kid maimed or killed. Dangerous or not, Jason Beaudoin is an eighteen-year-old idiot, and not worth a gang war. Erik turns the matter over that evening and the next day - a Saturday - he completes his chores and homework early so he can go to the library before meeting The Guys. He returns books for the whole family, checks out a few for himself, and then resorts to something he’s always considered beneath him: he calls the police. The library has one of the few public phones left in the city and he has it to himself for the fifteen minutes it takes to get the right cop on the phone and tell what he knows. Detective Rossi wants his name and number, which Erik refuses. Rossi can call him Christian if he likes. No, he doesn’t want to meet either, not even anonymously. What he will do, Erik says, is go to the newspapers if the police let “the Beaudoin gang” get away with their crimes. He’ll call back in a few days if Rossi wants to talk more, but that’s as far as he’ll go.

Erik sticks closer to home for the next several days, but he does find time to call Rossi two more times while studying and researching final projects. The detective asks him to explain the drug deal in greater detail and tries to get “Christian” to meet. Erik refuses, of course, and in turn probes the detective to try to figure out when they’ll make a raid. Rossi doesn’t give him any clues, but Erik has an idea of how these things work. Monday the 18th is the first day of finals, and the last Monday before the semester ends and Jason is whisked off for a family vacation. Erik has two exams in the morning and gets out of school early. He goes home to walk Buddy and check in with his foster parents. Would it be okay with them if he went back downtown? He’s feeling antsy and wants to grab a bite out and maybe see a movie. He’ll call if he’s going to be late, of course.

The table with the good view is clear when Erik gets to the Merrill. There seem to be an unusual number of plain sedans parked in the area. Interesting. Erik orders a cappuccino and an almond biscotti and settles in. There’s Jason, walking to the back of the building. He returns in ten minutes and one of the sedans leaves the area. Erik is watching intently when a shadow falls across his table.

“Hey, Erik. Mind if I join you?”

The speaker is a total stranger, a short, stocky fellow in his late 50s. Erik is momentarily bewildered, and then…

“Lieutenant Clark?”

“Call me Jim. Thought I’d introduce myself as today is kind of special.”

Erik warily shakes the man’s hands and Clark sits down with his own coffee.

There’s a discreet, controlled flurry of activity on the street below. Four uniformed cops show up, seemingly out of nowhere and have a brief conference with two men in street clothes before entering the office complex.

“The man in the blue coat is Detective Rossi. He’d like to meet you.”

“He’s not going to if I can help it.”

“Shouldn’t be an issue. If I know Rossi, they have more than enough evidence.”

Nothing is happening on the street, so Erik takes a good look at his new friend. Lieutenant Clark looks like a very tough gnome, square and grizzled. He seems quite tickled by the situation.

“Did you figure this out by watching me or by talking to Rossi?”

“A little of each. Frankie and I go way back. I may have mentioned rumours of kids dealing out of the radio station the last time we went out for a beer. And you’ve been a busy boy indeed.”

“If you say so.”

Clark decides that Erik’s biscotti looks good and gets his own cookie. They sit and watch without speaking until a patrol car slides into the loading zone with a brief yawp of siren and two more uniforms jog into the building.

“That will be the cleanup crew. If you’re all done there we can probably catch your buddy on the way out. I’ll give you a ride home.”

Erik nods and leaves a few dollars on the table. This arrest is a lot quieter than the ones he’s used to. Jason isn’t even cuffed and the officers guide him into the patrol car more gently than Erik would like. At least he’s crying, which is nice to see. The man who sold Erik cocaine is cuffed and curses bitterly as he’s shoved into another marked car. Erik makes a mental bet that he’ll turn on the Beaudoins before the night is over. Rossi and the other detective lag behind with Elijah Beaudoin who is sputtering with anger and confusion.

“Seen enough?” Clark asks.

“Just another minute.” Erik wishes he’d brought a camera, but this will have to do. When he’s pretty sure Jason has caught sight of him through the tinted window, he waves.

“Okay, I’m done.”

Chapter Text

Andre Torres hears his child scream and starts running, leaping through the fresh snow past the holly shrub and the tower room, and there is Miranda, shrieking safely and happily in Michael Shaw’s arms.

“Ow! Ow! Daddy, Ow! Ay-wig made a ow!” She squirms until Michael lowers her to the ground so she can run to her father.

Erik has indeed made an owl. What had looked like a very bad snowman earlier in the day is now an obvious owl, about six feet tall, with two shiny gold Christmas ornaments for eyes and well-defined wings and feet. Miranda is enchanted with the thing and keeps reaching for it with her tiny, mittened hands. From somewhere behind the snow owl comes a low hooting which made the little girl scream and giggle again. Erik stands up to show himself, something Miranda finds inexpressibly funny.

And now she wants to make her own “ow” so Andre packs a a little snowball for her to roll. Michael has to go inside to make some calls but he promises to look for two more spare ornament “eyes” and come back to help later. Erik continues to put the finishing touches on his owl with a butter knife and it occurs to Andre that this may be the first time he’s made a snowman in his life. Well, snow thing.

“Hey, since we’re alone… we haven’t had a chance to really talk,” he says. This isn’t true, as they’ve had a few days to chat about grades, classes, skiing and every other innocuous topic, but they both know what he means.

“Is there a development I should know about?”

“Jason Beaudoin is looking at some pretty serious charges, along with two accomplices who are throwing him under the bus as hard as they can. I doubt if he’ll end up doing hard time, but apparently his dad has been on a loud law and order kick for the last two years; lots of scathing sermons about the local police and prosecutors. A lot of people are eager to see him fall.”

“Huh. I had no idea.”

“Jim Clark told me all about it. It doesn’t help that Jason was dealing out of his dad’s business. Kind of implies the old man was in on it, although he’s denying all knowledge.”

Erik smiles a Mona Lisa smile and adds some details to the owl’s beak. “You talk to Lieutenant Clark often?”

“Now and then. And yes, we discuss you. To answer the question you’re dying to ask, he thinks you’d make a good mercenary.” Andre puts his hands over Miranda’s ears. “Specifically, he said you were a cold little bastard but would be good in a firefight.”

Erik finds this kind of thing far too flattering and is in need of a good tweaking. “Why are you hanging around making weird snow art today? I figured you’d be skiing again.”

“We’ll go back tomorrow. I took a pretty good tumble yesterday so I thought it would be nice to stick close to the house today. Besides, Kate is going to teach me to skate after dinner. Did you know she was a competitive figure skater in high school? Didn’t qualify for the Olympics, but still pretty good.”

Andre hadn’t known that, but isn’t surprised. Like his ward, Liu is the kind of generally athletic person who seems to have played and done everything at least once. Her skiing abilities have proven invaluable as she’s the only one capable of helping Erik improve his skills on the slopes. Her willingness to get him good and exhausted has freed everyone else up to enjoy the little slice of heaven Michael Shaw and Paul Ferrer have created for their guests.

The Maple Creek Bed and Breakfast won’t open officially until next spring, so this gathering is a sort of shakedown cruise. Michael wants to make sure the rooms are comfortable and the caterer is up to the task, plus a hundred other details. The Queen Anne house was sound and strong when Michael bought it, but even so, he and Paul have been working hard for months to paint, redecorate, and furnish it, not to mention all the work on the business end from hiring contractors to obtaining a license. They still haven’t finished their own bedroom, the office, or the carriage house suite. Michael is worried they won’t be ready by spring, but what they’re done already is incredible. Maribella had sighed in relief when they’d arrived just after dusk to see the whole house and the surrounding maple trees lit up with white fairy lights. The interior was still a little spare, but there’d been a welcoming fire and a gorgeous Christmas tree in the sitting room. Michael put them in the largest guest room, the red and cream suite overlooking the pond, with a trundle bed for Miranda and a jacuzzi. The look on Mari’s face when she’d seen the room had made every minute of the six-hour-drive worth it.

Satisfied with his own sculpture, Erik kneels down beside Andre and works on the body of Miranda’s “ow” building up a base to reach the little girl’s shoulders.

“Do you and Aunt Mari like this place?” Erik has taken to using “aunt” all the time now to keep things simple.

“Sure! What’s not to like? It’s gorgeous here. So peaceful. And we’re all having fun, aren’t we?”

Erik nods. “We are, but is there mass appeal? I hope Michael and Paul can make a go of it. No mortgage helps, and Paul has his landscaping business. Working out of the house would offset the hit they take on relocating.”

“Landscape architecture. It’s completely different, and why on earth are you so invested in this?

That kid stops. “That’s actually a good question.” He scoops up two mounds of snow to form owl feet, a thoughtful look on his face. “I’ve been this close to asking Michael for his business plan all day, which would be inappropriate, correct?”

“Good lord, yes. Also, this is not your problem in any way.”

“Maybe… I think having time on my hands has unsettled me. You know, it’s Maddy’s fault. It’s the whole family’s fault. As soon as finals were done I stopped being busy just like that, and then Sarah and Michael came home and everything went mellow and full of holiday spirit.”

“Oh, no! And then you had a wonderful Christmas with great food and gifts and fun. No wonder you’re upset.”

“I am fully aware that this is unreasonable, Andre,” Erik snaps. Miranda shakes her tiny fists and growls in sympathy. Lately she’s decided to be a wolf whenever things annoy her.

“I don’t blame you, actually. It sounds like your gifts were really thoughtful and cool. And you’ll probably get a lot of use out of the telescope. I saw that you had it set up on the balcony. All those people thinking about what you’d like to read or listen to, holding up clothes in the store and wondering how they’d look on you…”

“Sarah gave me a massive jar of sour hard candies because I’d mentioned I liked them once, months ago. She remembered that. It will last me for months.”

“I bet they talked about the future too, just taking it for granted that you’d be there.”

Erik turns to face him. “That’s it! You’ve hit upon it. That’s what’s been bothering me all week. They were talking about scheduling trips to watch Michael graduate and then attend Sarah’s ceremony and Maddy said they’d probably do the same thing in two years when Sarah finishes grad school just before my high school graduation.”

“You think that’s bad, just wait until you’re an obvious grownup again and it’s your turn to host Thanksgiving dinner.” This has clearly not occurred to Erik before, judging by the blank look on his face.

“Of course, you’ll have weddings to attend, maybe as part of the wedding party. Book launches, christenings, summer reunions. As Maddy and Marcus age you’ll have other duties if you want them. It’s part of being in a family. They’re with you, and you’re with them.”

“Forever.”

“Scary, isn’t it? Imagine having people you can count on for the rest of your life.”

“People who will count on me, you mean.” Erik frowns in disgust. “That’s why I ended up handing the whole Beaudoin matter to the cops. I could have dealt with him myself, directly, but the holidays complicated things, and there was so much to do with the family.”

“And it would hurt them if you got into trouble, and they enjoy having you around. Nothing wrong with that.” Andre looks at his little girl, who has managed to make a lopsided snowball big enough to serve as a head. He tries to imagine what she’ll look like as an adult, then brushes the thought away. “I’d try to relax about it if I were you though. Trying to predict the future is pointless as you know better than anyone. You might also think about how your first incarnation would have been different if you’d had a Maddy and Marcus back in the dark ages.”

“Right. Second life and all that. Michael is coming back.”

Michael is indeed back, with two small green ornament eyes for Miranda’s owl. He’s feeling pretty jolly, having finalized arrangements for their New Year’s Eve party and an extra bit of business for later on that day.

“Paul just set up the lights in the back and re-flooded the rink. It looks great. You guys will be able to skate as long as you like. I was thinking we could have a big fire and hot chocolate for everybody. What do you think?”

“That sounds perfect,” Erik says. “That way people won’t be watching me try to skate for the first time.”

“Oh, you won’t be alone. Paul is a good skater and I can manage. I also did a big of snooping at the shoes in the closet and have borrowed skates from the neighbours for Andre here, and Maribella and Miranda. My friend Clara’s daughter just outgrew hers and she says you can keep them. No pressure, of course.”

“There will absolutely be pressure. Andre, as my legal guardian it is your duty to accompany us on the rink.”

“I’ll have you know that I am a reasonably competent, as you will see when I literally skate rings around you.” Andre notes that Erik has the bratty eye roll down pat. “Thank, you, Michael. You really do think of everything. Mari and I have loved everything about this trip. We’re already talking about coming back soon.”

Michael actually blushes at that. He sticks around to help Miranda finish her owl, steadying the little girl as she places the shiny green eyes. Later in the evening, Miranda attaches herself to Paul who patiently walks her around the pond in her tiny white skates as Kate and Erik practice gliding and stopping on the other side. Andre and Maribella are able to skate on their own a little, even hold hands, something they don’t manage often these days. When they join Michael by the fire he pours them each a mug of hot chocolate with brandy and then whisks himself off to the pond, thermos in hand.

Andre puts his arm around Maribella and they watch the skaters. Kate is on her own now, executing spins and jumps as Erik practices the basics: gliding, stopping, one foot up, then the other, backwards and forwards. When he skates close to the light Andre is struck by the expression of absorbed contentment on his face. He wonders if Old Ivan had enjoyed learning new things, or the Young Olrik for that matter.

“Notice how people keep arranging for us to be alone together?”

Andre hadn’t noticed, but now that he thinks about it, she’s quite right.

“It’s a conspiracy. They want us to love it here so we keep coming back.”

“It’s working. This has been so… necessary.” Maribella nestles against him comfortably and watches as Paul picks Miranda up for a fast skate. It’s been a busy year, and a hard one in some ways. Her job has been emotionally draining and Andre has been spending more time at the office than ever. These few days in Shelburne have been rejuvenating, and as he’d promised Mari, romantic. For a paranoid moment Andre wonders if Erik - who is a man of the world after all - had planned even that. Then again, there’s no point in trying to analyze what’s going on in that head, and it really doesn’t matter. He should take his own advice about living in the moment, Andre decides, as he leans down to kiss his wife.

***

Romance is in the air in Pitlochry as well. Francis Blake had assumed that this holiday would be an indulgence for Phillip, but has fallen in love with the place. Craigallan Lodge could do with some repair work but the caretakers had arranged for a good cleaning and a full woodshed. The local folk had been a little standoffish until Phillip made it clear that he’s the heir, not a mere buyer. He’s been deliberately vague about his “Uncle Phillip,” so naturally everyone has assumed that he’s his own illegitimate son. Hardly anyone cares about such things these days, nor are they overtly inquisitive about their relationship. There are a few knowing looks and references to “your friend” but nothing more. Francis suspects that they’re more protected by the solid ownership of Craigallan than the tolerance of modern times, but he has no desire to quibble.

It’s been so quiet and calm, the contrast with London striking in every aspect. The very first morning they’d lingered in bed until hunger had driven them to the chilly kitchen, and once they’d fed themselves and the fire, they’d gone right back to bed. Several times they woken to fresh deer tracks in the snow.

Pitlochry hasn’t radically changed since Lady Eileen left. There are more people, naturally, and the Victorian structures require more maintenance these days, but perhaps they’re more treasured for that reason. Most of the people Phillip and Francis meet have a great deal of pride in their community, the pride of knowing that they live in a beautiful place to which less fortunate souls will travel from afar to enjoy for even a few days. Phillip is of the opinion that since the big festival theatre opened in 1951 the town has become more sophisticated without being spoiled. The theatre has spawned side businesses. The cafes and restaurants are a little better than you’d expect in such a small town, and people talk about theatre nearly as much as they talk about golf or hiking. There’s certainly none of the insularity city people fear in a small town, and the pair find themselves invited to a few dinners, a church concert, and a rather grand party at a local distillery to ring in the New Year.

Francis bought Phillip a travelogue of Iceland for Christmas, a promise of things to come. His present was a hand-knit Scottish pullover, a garment made to last another lifetime. As gifts they’re perfectly fine, but as souvenirs of their first second youth Christmas holiday, they’re infinitely precious. When it comes time to lock up the house and head back to London, Mortimer is no longer sure that he wants a tenant, and Blake has several good points about summer golf and the festival. They could go riding next time. They have much to think about.

***

In what was her childhood bedroom, Julia rests in the lotus position upon a stretch of spotless cream flokati. She’s at the stage her awareness of the world has pinpointed to the warmth of her body, the rhythm of her breath, and the light behind her eyelids. Then comes the delicate chime of the timer and she slowly opens her eyes. Thirty minutes already! She’ll have to increase her time by five minutes tomorrow. She completes a short series of stretches and shakes out the rug, restoring its fluffy texture. There are no souvenirs of her youth in this room, not even a worn bookcase or a school prize tucked into a drawer. Julia allows herself two family photographs displayed on the mantle downstairs, and a small collection of mementos kept in a rosewood trunk that she keeps in her bedroom and rarely opens. Like the rest of the house, this room has been stripped to the skin, repainted, and repurposed. This room has been dedicated to health and well-being from the sunlamp to combat the seasonal blues to the marble topped sideboard containing a selection of herbal teas, essential oils, candles and incense.

Julia fixes herself a pot of peppermint tea and sits in the rocking chair by the window to watch the clouds roll by and reflect. Since the first of the month Julia has turned down several invitations to holiday parties from neighbours and friends of her late parents. She was gracious with everyone, even Gilly, who had proposed some kind of godawful girly weekend nonsense. She had pled exhaustion and the demands of the season on all retailers, but the truth is that nothing on earth could convince Julia to eat goose and pudding with a bunch of cheerful drunks. When they’d finally closed out on Christmas Eve Julia had poured herself and the girls a glass of Prosecco each before sending them home, then locked up, and started her standard holiday routine of fasting, meditation, yoga, and reading. When the store reopens on January 2 she will show up slim and glowing, ready to sell artfully packaged hope to the poor fools who’ve been breakfasting on chocolate liqueurs all week.

Most of her old friends from school are either home with own children or visiting aging parents today. Julia is sorry her own parents died so relatively young, but she is not lonely and has no regrets, no dreams of her own man sneaking another slice of mincemeat pie or of little ones with their round, sticky faces. Tonight she is scheduled to add root vegetables back to her diet, a fact to track, not get excited about. After dinner she’ll put on some music and finish her book, an overview of ley lines and sacred places. Since her business with The Order picked up she’s been reading more esoteric literature; not the self-help line she sells to others, but broader texts on power and the course of human history. She thinks of this as preparation for the possibility that Gideon may turn out to be useful after all these years, that her dream of a cleaner, more orderly world may some day come about.

It pleases Julia to think of quiet days ahead, and it pleases her even more to think of poor Gideon hustling for once in his life. She’s not precisely sure what’s going on with him and Pinker, and she doesn’t care. Gideon had wanted to drag her in deeper that strange November night when Pinker had demonstrated his hypno-disc, but she’d pocketed her tablet of E and left the boys on the threshold of Gideon’s over-plush bedroom. Whatever happened after that resulted in Pinker moving into the order headquarters the next day, newly devoted to Gideon, the order, or both. A crew of minions had cleared and cleaned the attic to create a combination lab and sleeping quarters for Pinker. Some had donated clothes and furnishings. She herself had presented Pinker with a basket of toiletries from her men’s line, a write-off she hopes will encourage the little man to bathe more often.

Now poor Gideon is with his family in Hampshire, playing the part of the good son. No doubt even Pinker would be preferable company. As for their pet physicist, he’s spending the holidays in his little attic, with order volunteers scheduled to bring him food and drugs and remind him to eat, sleep, and brush his teeth. Gideon had hinted that she might want to supervise Pinker’s care, giving her the first belly laugh she’d enjoyed in weeks. Julia had in turn offered to burn the building to the ground if he approached her with the notion of ministering to Pinker ever again. “You’re the one who has the little beast in thrall, you look after him,” she’d told him. “And that means no honey trapping either. I don’t want you pulling Order women into this, especially Gilly.” Gideon had turned a bit surly at that, but had agreed. Pinker is unpredictable and possibly dangerous, just the type to ruin everything is provoked. Besides, Gideon plans to shake down as many family members as he can over the holidays, and he can’t have a hint of scandal interfering with that.

Julia finishes her tea and decides to end her session with a three card tarot spread. She does not credit herself with psychic power or anything supernatural, but over the years the tarot has proven to be an invaluable meditation aid, a way to tease out her thoughts and questions. She holds her favourite deck for a moment, shuffles, and deals herself three cards: Three of Wands, Death, King of Pentacles, all upright. Hmm. Travel, change and wealth? Or perhaps an arrival, an ending, and a provider of some kind. Interesting. Julia contemplates the cards, committing the image of the spread to memory. She puts the deck away surveys the room to make sure it is perfectly tidy and leaves, shutting the door behind her. Tomorrow she will increase her meditation time and reflect on the cards.

***

Gilly had told Julia, and her school friends, and some members of the Order how much she was looking forward to having a good, old-fashioned Christmas with her family. She had painted a picture of fragrant evergreens, singing in church, long walks before dinner. Perhaps in the back of her mind she’d held on to the hope that someone would be charmed enough to come with her, perhaps even Julia who is alone in the world, but so independent. It’s true that when Gilly was a child Christmases were a lot of fun, with her cousins visiting and meetups with friends back from school. These days it’s just her and her parents, and the servants of course. They don’t even have a dog any more.

As recently as three years ago Gilly’s mother had made the holidays special. The raucous games had given over to dinner parties and outings to plays and concerts, but it had been a pleasure to watch her mother supervise the work, putting in a hand to decorate the cakes or arrange flowers. Gilly has never found out what exactly went wrong. Her mother had aged ten years in twelve months and rarely leaves the house now except to visit specialists. Mr. Montrose insists that she’s going to be fine, but she just gets greyer and sadder. When she visits Gilly tries to cheer her mother with conversation, reading, puzzles, and card games. Sometimes Mrs. Montrose puts up with this graciously and sometimes she snaps and orders Gilly to bother someone else.

Gilly’s father isn’t much better. His work is vital to the security of the country, and on the strength of that fact he long ago relegated all the managing of the house and their daughter to his wife. When he talks to Gilly it’s mostly to ask why she hasn’t graduated yet, wasn’t that supposed to happen last year? He seems more irritable than ever during this visit. Gilly tries to get him to go for a walk in the woods or play a game of backgammon, but he retreats every time, muttering something about work or checking on her mother.

The house is quiet without being peaceful. There’s no music or sound of chatter, no visitors except her mother’s doctor and a physiotherapist, both of whom come and go without a word. The cook prepares tiny, bland meals for the invalid in the house, and enough heartier dishes for Ginny and her father to graze upon when they feel like it. They don’t sit down to regular meals at all any more. Gilly doesn’t complain to the few friends and neighbors she encounters during this visit, of course, but it’s an effort. How she would like to call Julia, but her dear friend is busy with the shop. No doubt the holidays are difficult for Julia as well. It might be more fun to go back to town, pop in to Order HQ, but Father Gideon won’t be back until January and the awful man is actually living there now. Before leaving Gilly had brought Pinker a Christmas cake heavy with fruit and brandy as a conciliatory gift. He’d raised it to his nose, sniffed loudly, and bitten off a chunk without breaking eye contact. He’d said it was a good cake and thanked her sincerely, but that didn’t make it any less unsettling.

Gilly sighs and wonders if she can turn on the television without making anyone angry. Without much hope in her heart, she scans the family DVD collection. Everything she actually likes has been given away, as if they didn’t expect her to come back. Well, there’s Lawrence of Arabia, her father’s favourite and one of the few old movies she can tolerate. She’ll ask him if he’d like to watch it with her after dinner. Maybe he’ll even sit at the table with her. They could split the remains of the chicken and ham pie in the fridge, maybe have a glass of wine together.

Gilly makes her way to father’s office as quietly as she can. She’s not trying to be stealthy, truly, but so far she’s been snapped at three times for “making a racket” by walking in hard-soled slippers. She hesitates outside the door, which is half open. She can’t see her father, but she can hear him. He’s on the phone and it sounds work related. Gilly’s eyes sting with tears, but she pinches her nose and looks at the ceiling until they recede. She knows full well he doesn’t need to be working, it’s just that he’d rather talk to staff than spend twenty minutes with his daughter, that’s all.

And then Gilly hears something that makes her forget her upset. Did her father just say the words “Golden Mu nonsense”? She holds her breath and listens. Her father has a tendency to grumble and mumble, but he is absolutely talking about the order with somebody named Dalton. Gilly gets as close as she can without hitting the door. Somehow Father Gideon has drawn the attention of MI-5, but why would they bother with someone who only wants to do good? Her father’s job is all about national security, not spirituality or personal growth. He wouldn’t know personal growth if it came up and bit him. Gilly holds perfectly skill until she hears her father hang up, then creeps up to her room to makes as many notes as she can while her memory is fresh. Her father had mentioned Father Gideon and “the Fox-Devereux clan,” and someone named Redwing who works with the CIA. She hadn’t heard that part clearly. He was talking to Dalton, probably a last name. Bronsky? Kregosky? That one isn't clear at all. There is a file, but why? Gilly decides that as soon as her father is occupied she will visit his office and see what she can find. She has a moment when she wonders if she should speak to her father directly, but she dismisses the idea. Father Gideon is a fine man, a benefactor to mankind, and if MI-5 is unfairly targeting him, he deserves to know it.

Once again, Gilly is tempted to call Julia, but the thought makes her feel shy. Besides, who knows if the phones are tapped or if there are microphones in the house? No, she’ll wait until they’re all back together and explain the situation in person. The thought sparks a bit of warmth in Gilly’s heart. She tucks her notes in the copy of The Tao of Pooh she’d brought with her and decides to go for a long walk by herself. She needs to process what she’s heard if she’s going to act natural around her father later.

***

Gideon Fox-Devereux is bored, bored, bored. He’s been playing the dutiful son game for three days with nothing to show for it. For some reason people keep going all vague every time he broaches the subject of investment opportunities. Father had cut off the possibility of extra funding rather rudely. He’d offered to set Gideon up with an interview at a luxury car dealership, which was frankly insulting. Gideon had attempted to explain The Order for the twentieth time, with no luck. Of course, Gideon had approached his mother, who is usually the softer touch, but she’d turned him down on the grounds that she, too, is on a short leash. It isn’t that the family is going broke, but dear old dad and some of the uncles are trying to get in with an American tycoon and they don’t have time for anything else.

The need to woo the tycoon is why Gideon finds himself milling around the ballroom of his parents’ country house half strangled in his slightly tight evening clothes, bored out of his mind. He’d managed to down two glasses of champagne earlier, but now the footmen are avoiding his eye, on father’s instructions, no doubt. Maybe he should sneak off to the village where the twenty pounds he has on him would at least buy some fun.

Good god, his father is making a speech. Apparently this Mr. Atcheson is a visionary, a genius, a man with the future in his hands. Gideon gets a good look at the fellow and guesses he has about two years of future in his hands. Atcheson must have been a tall man in his day but now he’s wizened and compressed, with skin like used tissue paper. The only thing vital about him is his lush, snow white pompadour, so strange on a walking skeleton.

He cannot stand it any more. Gideon makes his way to the kitchen where he manages to snag a gulp of brandy and two crab puffs before he’s chased off again. He wishes he’d stayed in Weybridge where he’s master of the house, however humble. At headquarters members hang on his every word, here he can’t even get a damned drink. Gideon wonders what Julia is doing now; probably sipping a wheatgrass tonic and hovering six inches off the ground, the smug bitch. And what of Pinker? As a certifiably mad scientist Pinker can’t really be trusted alone. Gideon hopes he won’t try to hit up visitors for drugs and light fondling, but there’s no telling.

With a sigh, Gideon smooths his hair and wanders through the hall again making an effort to look unconcerned and sober. There’s no sign of his father or Atcheson, but there’s his mother making small talk with some old friends. She gives him a bright little nod as he passes, so he must look well enough. It is hot in the hall, though, so Gideon wanders off, past the billiard room, which is occupied, but not by anyone he knows. Maybe the library? Ah, yes. The guest of honour is holding court. Father is there, with Uncle George, Uncle Fred, and Fred’s son Gabriel. Father nods, granting Gideon permission to sit down and listen. They’re discussing the proper order of society, the role of the ruling elites. It’s a subject dear to Gideon’s heart, but he says nothing. The novelty of hearing his own thoughts rasped out in an American accent is too enthralling.

Now Atcheson is paying lip service to democracy and the need for education. A heavy-handed approach won’t work in the Anglosphere. Atcheson touches on the failures of Oswald Mosley and Huey Long.

“The scientific approach has much to recommend it, but it has to be institutional, backed by power and money,” the old man says. “Otherwise you get brilliant failures like Septimus or Evangely and the principles are lost.”Gideon’s eyes nearly pop out of his head. He stares at Atcheson, then at the other listeners. They appear nonplussed, as if they hadn’t heard something absolutely amazing. Gideon stands and nods at the company. He walks straight to the front entrance and puts on his overcoat. He stands outside the door, stamping his feet to keep warm, watching guests leave.

After what seems like an hour, a dark green Bentley pulls up close and Atcheson comes out of the house alone. Before the driver can whisk the old man away Gideon makes his move. He introduces himself in a breath and begs for just a moment, a second of the man’s time.

“I was so struck by what you said about the scientific approach, Mr. Atcheson. You should know that the principles have not been entirely lost. Some of us are still devoted to the great work, and we are succeeding. There are great things to come.”

Atcheson grins, showing off a set of teeth too white to be natural. It's not a pretty sight. “You been drinking, sonny?”

Gideon puts his hand to his heart. “Sir, I am quite sober I assure you, and I can prove what I say. There is a true heir to the work of Septimus in the most literal, practical sense. I can show you if you like.”

Atcheson snickers and waves his hand in the air, a confusing gesture. The driver helps the old man into the car and shuts the door firmly. Gideon is about to weep with frustration when the driver hands him a card. “Call tomorrow. Mr. Atcheson is interested. You’d better not be wasting his time.”

Gideon watches the car drive off until he realizes that the rain has picked up. Unless he gets inside now he’ll be soaked and the card will be ruined.

***

In Shelburne, Vermont, the first day of 1996 is cold and crisp with a light snow that clings to the fairy lights and gingerbread trim of the Maple Creek house. Michael Shaw is helping his first guests organize their departure. Erik and Kate Lui are ready to go and have been for several minutes, but they’re waiting for Andre and Maribella to pack up. Travelling with a toddler is like travelling with a circus, but with more yelling. Kate tries not to smile as Maribella wrestles Miranda into her carseat. Somehow the little girl has already lost one of her boots. Erik finds it in the snow and tosses it in one of the three baby bags. Maribella gives him a good squeeze and gets in herself, but then Paul comes out with a last minute gift of fresh scones made that morning by the caterer. He’s followed by Andre carrying everything they had almost forgotten in a plastic bag, including Miranda’s new skates, Maribella’s shampoo, and the winter gloves he’d left on the radiator after the New Year’s Eve party. More hugging, laughter, promises to come back soon, and then the car doors slam shut. Kate pulls out first and is barreling down the road before Andre checks his mirrors. He and Maribella wave at Paul and Michael and then they’re off as well.

Maribella holds the box of scones on her lap. They’ll still be good when they get home, she says. Would it be possible to freeze them for breakfast? Maybe next time they can order a batch to go.

“So you think we’ll be back?” Andre asks, although he knows the answer.

“Oh, my god. What if we could make this an annual thing? Do you think Michael and Paul could put up with us?”

“Sure, why not? We’re great guests except for making snowmen all over their yard and having a baby run up and down the hall and eating everything in sight.”

“Erik was the one eating everything. He must be growing again.”

“The two breakfasts a day seem to say so. I thought he looked good, didn’t you?”

“Huh? Oh, sure. He’s going to be a big, hulking dude. And yes, he’s a lot better than he was, very human-like, I thought.”

“Tsk. So critical!”

“And yet I invited him to visit us for spring break, hard-hearted Hannah that I am.”

“You’re the best, and you know it.”

“Drive on, you silver-tongued devil.”

***

“So, what do you think?”

Paul Ferrer turns to the man he’s chosen to live his life with, the man he calls his husband although they won’t be legally joined for another thirteen years.(1)

“I thought you were amazing and it was all wonderful. And there is no way in hell you can sustain that level of hospitality. It would kill us both.

”“What do you mean?”

“A horse-drawn sleigh? The string quartet? Midnight fireworks? Are you kidding me?”

“Oh, all that was just for our friends. When we have regular guests things will be a little more prosaic.”

“I should hope so!”

“I do know a little something about business, you know. Still… what do you think of having a regular winter fete?”

“Like this? For our friends?”

“Sure, but maybe something more community oriented. I’m still thinking it over. This was a good week, but who knows if real strangers would be impressed?” Paul thinks Michael is deluded for doubting his own ability. Andre and Maribella had raved about the place, and the kid had spent the whole time skating, skiing, and eating, so he had no complaints. Kate Lui isn’t sentimental, but she had paid him the supreme compliment of making a reservation for the summer. She’d also handed him an envelope stuffed with cash, courtesy of Redwing.

“Baby, I love you, but you’re a crazy man. How about we take a whole day to ourselves, maybe a whole weekend even, and then start worrying about next Christmas.”

Michael wraps his arms around Paul and rests his chin on his husband’s head. “You are so smart. What did I do to deserve such a smart fella?”

“Mmm, how about we get out of the cold and I’ll show you why we deserve each other.”

“Well, happy New Year to you too!”

Chapter Text

The first Friday of 1996 falls on the fifth, close enough to the New Year to warrant a little frivolity, which to Assiz Hassan means rosé champagne, salmon and lobster. Doris is charmed by the all-pink repast as she was meant to be. She digs in with uncharacteristic abandon as this is the first food she’s had all day. Usually Doris makes a point of taking care of herself first, but today has been exceptionally hectic even by post-holiday standards.

Most of their meeting concerns an idea Doris has been pursuing relentlessly for several weeks. There were six school shootings in the U.S. in 1995, and while only seven people were killed and four injured, the regularity of this kind of crime is leaving a mark on the national psyche. The expression “going postal” has entered the vernacular along with bitter jokes about disgruntled employees. Institutional and public facility security systems are changing to assuage new fears and accommodate new priorities. Redwing isn’t about to get into making metal detectors or renting mall cops, but there might be a market for education in early detection and prevention. This would be quite different for their training branch and might require some flexibility from Browning, perhaps even a whole new department.

“Have you broached the topic with Browning?”

“Without discussing it with you first? No. Besides, we’ve both been too busy for anything more than quick pleasantries.” Doris smiles, and her hand moves to the brooch on her chocolate brown dress. It’s a shield etched with the grimacing face of Medusa. Hideous, but very much Doris’s style, Assiz thinks. His own wife, Farah, has a small, tasteful collection of platinum and diamonds and would no more wear a character piece than she’d walk down Fifth Avenue naked.

“Just to change the subject for a moment, have you heard from The Kid recently?”

Now, what made her think of Erik? “He sent a Christmas card and a box of baklava. Why?”

“He sent me this pin. It’s only copper, but quite witty, I thought. It’s the kind of thing Ivan would have found amusing.”

“Charming.”

“Mmm. He sent Malcolm and Kelly flowers. William got a keychain shaped like a comm badge.”

“A what?”

“I have no idea, but William seemed tickled by it. The corners of his mouth must have turned up five degrees.”

“Great. Our golden child may have a minimal sense of what’s fitting.”

“What will it take before you admit that he’s more like Ivan than you gave him credit for?”

Assiz sighs. “I just don’t see the point of getting our hopes up. Ivan was one of a kind. Okay, maybe this kid isn’t entirely useless, but being a visionary isn’t an inherited trait. Besides, what if he doesn’t want to be an arms dealer when he grows up?”

Doris can’t argue with that. Her own children want to be a theatre director, a biologist, and a flautist, respectively.

“Then we deal with that and move on. And by the time he’s grown nobody will dare call us mere arms dealers,” Doris takes a sip of champagne. She suspects that Assiz is more worried about his own worthiness as Ivan’s successor than anything, but refrains from saying so. “He made the honour roll, you know. Straight As.”

“In what? Evading bodyguards? Snotty retorts?”

“He’s on the language track. Mandarin and Latin this semester. Takes all kinds. But Ivan was a bit of a linguist, wasn’t he?”

Assiz smiles, remembering. “More than a bit. You’d forget he wasn’t an English speaker and then he would speak Russian or French at a business meeting and surprise everyone. He once recited a bit of Arabic poetry to me and I could barely follow it.”

“Well, see? He may or may not have inherited other gifts.”

“Meh.”

“Then we’re agreed. Now, just to make you even happier, I’ve had research make up some notes on domestic terrorism that you will doubtlessly find riveting.” Doris finishes her wine, and takes the last lobster puff to go. “Mmm. So good. I’ll have to do something special next week.”

Assiz is left with his thoughts, an empty champagne bottle, and a stack of papers.

***

Doris’s information on Erik’s classes for the year is correct, but incomplete. In addition to Latin and Mandarin, he’s taking Integrated Geometry and Algebra 2, Computer Science, and Acting Styles. The latter is all Andre’s fault for putting the “yes, and” idea in his head, or so he says when they have their regular Friday chat on the 12th.

“Riiiight. It’s not like you’ve shown a flare for the dramatic in the past.”

“The very distant past. And this is much more academic than you’d expect. Lots of theory about techniques I’ve used for years without realizing it.”

“You’ll get to ham it up soon enough. How are your little friends doing?”

“They’re good. J.T. and Amy tried to set me up with her cousin. Dev is in my computer science class, so that’s handy. Caleb is acting like a person with half a brain for a change. Oh, and there are rumours that Jason Beaudoin’s mother has gone missing. Any truth to that?”

“Not exactly. According to Clark she’s gone to stay with family to avoid the press. The arrest attracted some attention from the IRS and who knows where that will lead? Those guys are scarier than the cops. Anyone else trying to pick on you?”

“Hah. No. My new teachers seem decent, the classes are interesting, especially Mandarin.”

“Maddy said you weren’t doing any school sports.”

“I’m still doing Anti-Gravity and we have months of skiing and skating. I’ve bought a pass for the arena, and now I go with J.T. and Amy quite often. That’s why she’s trying to set me up with her friends; she thinks it would be ‘cute’ for us to skate in pairs.”

“That sounds annoying.”

“It doesn’t matter. Water off a duck’s back. Anyway, I’m starting track and field after spring break, so don’t worry about my schedule. No chance of getting antsy.”

Erik is skirting the truth a bit here. Classes are good, The Guys are solid, and he is busy. He’s also very antsy for reasons he doesn’t really wish to discuss with Andre, but better to tell him now than to have him find out from Clark or the Wattells.

The day before Mrs. Chambers had introduced a new girl to the Latin 3 class. Noelle Bisset is an exchange student from Brest, France, and Mrs. Chambers was sure everyone would make her feel very welcome, meaning that they’d damn well better. Noelle was seated next to Erik who was struck by her poise. Naturally they’d practiced dialogues together, and naturally they’d talked a little in between. Noelle isn’t the kind of dark and dangerous lady who’s shown up repeatedly in Erik’s life, but she’s curious and fun to talk to. There was something about her that made Erik want to talk to her more, so later when he’d spotted her holding a lunch tray and scanning the cafeteria, he’d swerved over and invited her to sit with his friends.

Noelle had accepted his offer and was soon chatting with Amy and her friends Barb and Terri. She’s only staying in the U.S. for twelve weeks as a cultural exchange. She likes movies and her favourite music is Sinéad O’Connor, Mylène Farmer, and the Cranberries. She likes to skate but doesn’t have her skates with her. She would love to go to the mall Saturday. Yes, it is a little strange to only hear English, but she’s interested in languages and doesn’t mind. Her grades won’t matter too much because she’ll be making up the classes in the summer anyway.

“If you get tired of hearing English all the time, you can speak French with Erik. He’s like, totally fluent,” Amy had said, bless her heart.

Noelle was skeptical, so Erik had asked her - in perfectly fluent French - if she’d like to go skating on Sunday with him and some friends, because if she would he’d give her his number and they could make arrangements.

When she smiles broadly Noelle looks a bit like an elf. She’d grabbed her planner and asked him to write his name and number in the directory. She’d then passed it around to get the contact information for all her new friends, which had diluted the honour a little bit. Still, she’d chatted with Erik the most and when they’d figured out that her host family lived three blocks away from him, she’d suggested that they walk home together. After all, she’s still new to the neighbourhood and doesn’t want to take a wrong turn.

Erik ended up walking Noelle all the way home, then doubling back to the Wattell house. Noelle had sought him out at lunch Friday and they’d ended up going out for coffee after school, just to talk over the day and do homework, of course. Nothing serious. It’s nothing for Andre to be concerned about, and is actually none of his business, Erik was just mentioning it to keep his guardian informed.

Andre realizes he’s expected to bluster and blow up right now, and refuses to take the bait.

“Is she a nice girl?”

“She seems to be. To answer your next question, Noelle turned 16 last October.”

“Actually my next question was have you ever dated before? American style dating; I don’t mean affairs or one-night-stands…”

“You might have said state dinners or formal balls, with which I am very familiar.”

“Oh, right. With the weird vests and those shoes with the bows?”

“Court shoes are ridiculous. Wear polished dress shoes like a man with a real job. My point is that I have been around the block once or twice. I know how to adapt to situations, including social morés.”

“Noelle hasn’t been around the block. Girls her age seem mature, but they’re not. Maribella has some stories. Creepy old guys in cars, friends of her dad’s, even.”

Erik sighs. “I’ve never been that man, Andre. You’ve done your reading. You know I have never been someone who preys on women, at least… not for being women, and I’ve been listening to Sarah and Maddy. I have no intention of doing any harm here. Noelle isn’t an enemy.”

“I wasn’t accusing you of anything,” Andre says, realizing how accusatory he sounds. He’s glad the girl is going home in March. Maybe she’ll find another boy, someone more suitable. Maybe Erik will drop the whole thing. “Just be careful. I know I tell you that all the time, but be really careful. For your sake too. Jesus.” They end their conversation soon after that, neither very happy with the other.

Erik takes Noelle skating Sunday. J.T. and Amy are there, and Amy’s brother Charley, who is trying to make time with one of the younger rink attendants. Noelle is not a great skater, but she’s game. When she takes Erik’s hand for a spin he is almost overwhelmed by memories of past affairs: gang leaders, soldiers, forgers, spies, disgruntled wives, bored husbands, wayward spawn of nobility. None of the lessons he’s learned over the years apply here. He tightens his grip on her hand and speeds up for a turn. She follows through, then increases her speed to pull him along the straight stretch. They continue around the rink, coming together, speeding apart, joining the others from time to time until the buzzer announces the end of open skating.

J.T. gets a ride home with Amy and Charley’s dad, leaving Erik to take Noelle home. Her entire host family is there to greet them: Bob and Sheila Holmes, and all three of their kids, lurking in the front hall when they arrive. Bob insists on shaking Erik’s hand and grilling him a little. Good posture and quick answers are enough to impress Bob. Sheila is very curious about his connection to Maddy; she’s a big fan. They invite Erik to stay for dinner, but he has to go home, maybe some other day, maybe soon? As he leaves, Noelle steps out to the porch with him and tells him what a good time she had. She takes his hand and looks in his eyes. There’s a second where he wonders if she would accept a kiss, but she lets go and retreats inside. When Erik glances back from the sidewalk he catches a flash of her blonde head at the window.

The next day at school their whole friend group treats them as an established couple, but Noelle doesn’t take it seriously. She talks to everyone, carefully and politely. She makes sure, though, to let him know that she’s joined the chess club so she’ll be finishing her games when he’s done with Anti Gravity Club. They can walk home together. That sounds good to Erik. Maybe she'd like to stop by his house, meet his foster parents? They’re making plans when Erik notices that Dev and Caleb are giggling and gives them a steady look. He will not have them acting like a pair of rubes around Noelle.

Caleb catches his look and laughs harder. “Erik, my dude. I have your dare.”

“My dare.” Oh, right, their odd little incentive program.

“Yeah. Clean for thirty-five days now. High fives!” He slaps hands with his neighbours.

“RIght. So what is it? Can I do a cartwheel and get it over with?”

“I’ve signed you up to audition for the school musical. Thursday at 4:30, main music lab, you’re up.”

Erik doesn’t know what to say to that. Audition? How? Why is it a dare?

“Do you sing?” asks Noelle.

“No. I don’t know what they’re getting at.”

For some reason Caleb finds that hilarious. He has to put his head on the table to get a hold of himself.

“You don’t have to if you really don’t want to,” Dev says apologetically. “Nutjob here thought it would be funny.”
Erik shrugs. “I’m not afraid, it just sounds idiotic. What’s the point?”

“So you’ll do it!”

“Sure, Caleb. Whatever you want. Do I have to learn a specific song or anything?”

Erik’s ignorance of the process just makes Caleb laugh harder, the silly bastard. Erik jots the appointment in his planner and gets back to making plans with Noelle, ignoring the whispers from his friends.

***

Gideon calls Julia before noon on January 1, so she naturally assumes he’s still drunk from the night before. He’s certainly babbling and talking nonsense about winning the lottery or striking oil. When he finally calms down he makes himself understood: apparently they have a backer, or more accurately the possibility of a backer. Gideon had intended to clinch the deal and present it to her as a fait accompli, but then he’d realized that he’d need her help. Of course he did.

Julia has never heard of Ronald Atcheson but many of the richest people in the world never make the news. Gideon assures her that not only is the American loaded, he’s interested. Julia finds that latter hard to believe, especially when Gideon explains that Atcheson made his money manufacturing military aircraft, missiles, surveillance satellites, and the like. What would such a man want with a spiritual organization? Ah. The hypno-disk. Of course.

“Gideon, my dear, slow down. What makes you think a man like Atcheson wants to fund the Order? He makes weapons of war.”

“So?”

“He wants Pinker. He wants the disk and whatever else that little horror comes up with.”

“He doesn’t even know Pinker’s name. I told him the head of our research and technology division is under exclusive contract.”

“Hmm. Not bad. Is he?”

“No, but he will be by the time we meet with Atcheson. But you’re wrong about Atcheson. I listened to him for half an hour spinning what could have been one of my own sermons. He’s a true believer. Thing is, Julia, I don’t think I can take Pinker by myself. He’s still quite feral and tends to get restless and inappropriate. It might be better if you were along. He’s scared of you.”

“As he should be. How much time do we have?”

“Atcheson is in Germany for a few weeks but he’ll be back in London on the 18th, and I may have already committed us to meet him the evening of the 24th.

Julia frowns. That doesn't give them much time. Let’s all get together before Saturday’s service, you, me, and Pinker, sedated or otherwise. And I want Gilly, too.”

“Gilly? The little mousy one? Whatever for?”

“Because she has a flair for organization and she distracts Pinker. Have you really not noticed? She’s silly, but she’s also clever.”

“Can’t say I’ve seen any sign of cleverness, but if you want her, have at it. You handle Gilly, I’ll handle Pinker. And Julia? Thank you, truly. I think we might be on the verge of something great. I have a good feeling about this.”

“You know, Gideon, so do I. Blue skies ahead.”

***

When Rosemary Miller hears the giggling outside the door she figures she’ll be going home earlier than expected. Fine. Most of the students take auditions seriously - often way too seriously - but there’s always a few who think it’s funny to squawk something out for the entertainment of their friends. She opens the door and sees a group of boys she recognizes as the kids who dressed up as classic monsters last Halloween.

“Which of you gentlemen is here on business?’

The ridiculously tall one pushes his friend forward and starts to follow.

“No way. The rest of you scram. I don’t want to see you anywhere around here or you’ll all have to sing.” They back off and she ushers the remaining boy nto the choir room and checks him off the schedule.

“So, Ivan Ostrovsky, what have you prepared for me?”

“I go by Erik. And as you’ve clearly already guessed, I’m here on a dare. I only know the national anthem.” His speaking voice is deeper than you’d expect in such a skinny wolf pup of a kid.

“Mmm. I wondered. Don’t think I’m about to put you out of your misery. Step up to the platform there and get comfortable.”

The young man smirks, but he’s polite enough. Ostrovsky. Right. She’s heard a little staff gossip about the orphan involved in that nasty drug business in November, although it wasn’t his fault, or so they say.

Erik stands up straight, takes a deep breath and starts singing The Star-Spangled Banner. He’s surprisingly on-key for someone who doesn’t sing. No breath control to speak of, and his voice isn’t settled yet. She figures in another year or two he’ll be a solid baritone, probably on the deeper end of the range with age. She waits for him to crack or change key in the last line, but he more or less sails through. He even holds the high note for a tiny moment and finishes without taking another breath. It isn’t correct, but it isn’t bad. Naturally he stops at the first verse. Most people don’t know the song goes beyond the first voice.

“Thank you for your patience, Ma’am. Since I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain I won’t bother you anymore.”

“Don’t run off just yet.” Rosemary lets her purple-framed glasses dangle from their chain and sits down at the piano. “Try to sing what I play. Consider it the price of humouring your dirtbag friends.” She plays single notes, allowing him to figure them out one by one, then short passages. Kid has a decent ear, and he learns quickly.

“Have you had any music lessons? Band? Piano when you were little?”

“No, ma’am.”

She’s about to ask him about musical family members and thinks the better of it. Orphan. Right.

“Okay. Watch when I take a breath here.” She sings the last two line of the anthem for him, lifting her hand as she breathes. “Now you.”

Erik copies her the best he can and immediately realizes that this is more difficult than he’d realized. Don’t underestimate people, he reminds himself. Ms. Miller looks like a back alley fortune-teller, but she must be highly qualified in some way or she wouldn’t be at Silver Birch.

“Enjoying your first singing lesson? Just one more thing and then you can go. Let’s do the whole verse again, and this time take a breath like so when I raise my hand, and try for some volume. Think of your voice hitting the wall over there. Ready?”

Erik isn’t ready at all, but he goes ahead and in a moment of mischief belts out the last line with all the strength his developing voice can muster. His little stunt gets a smile out of Ms. Miller.

“Thank you, Erik. That was more fun than the average prank.” She lets him go. The hall is empty, no sign of his friends, only the distant growl of the floor polisher. In a moment he’s out in the snow, walking home quickly, thinking of a hundred things, none of them music.

***

Gilly has a secret she hasn’t told anyone, not her parents, not her classmates, not even Julia. The fact is that she could have received her degree more than a year ago. Her parents are under the impression that she’s been taking a low course load all this time, that she’s had to make up credits here and there, that she’s taken time off for unspecified health issues. She wouldn’t dare tell them she’s been on medication for depression several times, nor that she goes off her meds out of shame, nor that she’s in fact maintained a respectable academic average all this time because she copes by throwing herself into her work. Gilly likes the structure of the classroom, the schedule, the defined assignments. She appreciates mild, constructive criticism and regular validation. Sometimes she dreams of taking classes in the normal things other people seem to find so easy; making friends, picking out clothes, furnishing a flat, talking to people. She gives herself low marks on all counts. The thought of leaving school and making her own way in the world is too much right now, so she just keeps registering for more classes.

When Julia asks her to create a work schedule, or organize the Order accounts, or do a bit of research, Gilly is always grateful for the chance to contribute. She’s saved Gideon thousands of pounds in the last nine months but it never occurred to her to price her five years of accounting and business management studies above a thank you and the occasional gift. An assignment from Julia is in itself the kind of praise that keeps GIlly going. So when Julia asks her, with apologies, to look into Ronald Atcheson and see what she can find out in a few days, Gilly is off to the library like a shot. With only a few days to work she doesn’t get into as much detail as she’d like, only enough to write a four page report, mostly in point form, accompanied by some interesting clippings. She makes three copies and binds them in bright presentation folders, hoping to make an impression on Gideon.

She arrives at Order headquarters well before the regular meeting on January 6, the last day of Christmas. Julia is pleasant, but distracted for some reason. They need to get their conference over with before acolytes start to show up, so without ceremony they head to the kitchen. Pinker is already there, drinking coffee in his customary tense silence. Gideon tells the story of his meeting with Atcheson, embellishing the drama of the moment, making it seem as if he and the tycoon had struck up a connection, an instant meeting of minds. What’s important now, he stresses, is that they must make a good impression on Atcheson when they meet on the 24th. The man is a true believer with money, they just have to convince him that the Golden Mu is a good investment. Pinker assures the group that his hypno-disk is fully operational, and he’s modified the technology to make a new device, a tidy little weapon he’d be happy to demonstrate; more than happy actually.

Julia is keeping an eye on the clock, so before Gideon and Pinker get carried away with congratulating each other, she brings the meeting back to order. Gilly is no spellbinder as a speaker, but she gets their attention by starting off the news that MI-5 is watching them. This is shocking to Gideon. First of all, why hadn’t Gilly mentioned this connection before? (She did, you didn’t listen, Julia reminds him) Secondly, how dare the government look into his affairs when there are all kinds of immigrants and mad Irishmen causing trouble? Don’t they know who he is?

“Do let her continue, Gideon. We only have a few minutes. Go on, dear. This is fascinating.”

Gilly takes heart and hands out her folders. Contrary to what Gideon had assumed, Ronald Atcheson is 75, not 95, and he still runs his company, Parthenon, with the help of his three middle-aged sons, who are both collaborators and deadly rivals, at least according to the financial press. The old man inherited the aeronautics factory early in life and built it up into one of the top privately-owned aerospace and defence contractors in the United States. As they can see, she’s provided a brief history of the company and a simplified financial profile they can read at their leisure. They might want to read the clippings as well, particularly the last few pages.

“While I was researching recent activity I saw that Parthenon was exploring private military contracting - mercenaries - but were undercut by a much smaller company called Redwing. That was the name my father said on the phone, so I enlarged the scope of my research.”

“Very good, Gilly. Excellent initiative!”

Gilly glows with pleasure at Julia’s encouragement. “I didn’t have time to get much on Redwing, but the name of their founder was familiar: Ivan Ostrovsky. I’m pretty sure that was the name my dad gave to this Dalton person. The problem is, he’s been dead for almost a year. There must be some connection, but I haven’t figured out what it is. I’ll keep looking, but perhaps you could bring it up with Mr. Atcheson?”

It’s all a bit too much for Gideon, who is slack-jawed with only five minutes before his flock is due. Julia gives him a shove to wake him up. “Gideon, go throw some water on your face and prepare to dazzle. We want the collection plate to be heavy tonight. Pinker, you go with him, he needs your support. Take some E or something.”

The men leave and Julia clasps Gilly’s hand, eyes gleeful. “Gilly, that was brilliant. You really are the most clever girl. Do you by any chance have time for lunch this week? Or perhaps a quick drink after work? There are a few things I’d like to discuss, just the two of us.”

Of course Gilly has time, all the time in the world if Julia wants it.

***

Rosemary Miller pours a second glass of wine and shuffles her casting notes like she’s trying to read the future. Silver Birch is loaded with talent, some of it very well trained and highly temperamental, some of it backed by stage parents prone to tantrums. Casting a musical requires deft management and diplomacy, always a challenge, made worse this year by the absence of three star students who had the nerve to leave the school just because their families left the state. She’ll have to cast two of her most promising juniors in the leads, which will ruffle feathers. There will be battlefield promotions, meaning that some even younger students will have to take more prominent roles than they’d merit otherwise. Also annoying is the absence of her prize tenor, who will be studying music in England this year instead of belting out the 11 o’clock number.

Rosemary sighs. She has to get this nailed down so she can post the cast list at the end of the day Friday, go home early, and turn off her phone. She can teach, she can model, she can encourage, and she can transpose the hell out of a score if need be, but unless the kids are enthusiastic the play will fall flat. Taking a chance on rawer talents might make for a more difficult rehearsal, but sometimes the spark makes it all worth it. She takes a nice, long sip and makes her first call: no guts, no glory.

***

Andre has noticed when dealing with Ivan and now Erik it’s best to get any bad news out of the way. This time he has two items he’d rather not be dealing with, but here goes. When Erik picks up for their next regular Friday, Andre goes for it.

“You sitting down?”

“Yes, what happened? Is everyone all right?”

“What? Yes, we’re all fine. We’re great. I got the report from Cooper and Cooper.”

“Oh? And?”

“The Golden Mu is getting more active. They seem to have recruited an authentic mad scientist and have definitely attracted the attention of MI-5. A British intelligence flunky got in touch with Malcolm and they’ve been sharing information discreetly. Your name hasn’t come up, but someone, somewhere has made a connection between the Mega Wave technology and your company.”

“Blake.” Erik’s voice is flat and angry, but he doesn’t seem scared.

“No doubt. But he’s hands off on this file. The point man is Mark Dalton, very much a junior agent. They’re not taking it very seriously. It’s considered a potential domestic threat, and not a very big one. Malcolm tried to persuade him otherwise.”

“All right. That’s actually reassuring. If this Dalton has a gram of good sense he’ll respect Malcolm’s point of view. He has a way of making people listen. I assume Clark is in the loop on everything?”

“Of course! Glad you’re taking it that way. Now on to more pressing matters: are you still dating that little French girl?”

“She’s five-seven, and yes. Are you still fretting about my private life?” He emphasizes "private."

“Maribella wants to chat with you.”

By the end of the twenty-minute “chat” Erik can do little more than murmur “yes, ma’am” and write down the names of the sex positive authors Maribella recommends. She’s speaking of ethics and fairness, but what he’s getting is a sense of how rules and perceptions have changed since his first youth. For one thing, people actually use the words ethics and fairness when talking about casual relationships of all things. It’s all rather dry and academic, but he can see how a little nuance would be preferable to sowing wild oats all over the place. Maribella wants to save him emotional pain and damage to his reputation, and that seems reasonable, if a little intrusive. Do normal people with real aunties get this kind of lecture? She finally ends by wishing him well and promising to send the Peggy Orenstein essay before putting Andre back on the line.

“Sorry, man. She insisted.”

“Fine. I wouldn’t argue with her either. You’re both impossible busybodies but I know what she’s afraid of. She thinks I’ve spent most of my life sheltered from the world instead of, well, the absolute opposite. Good lord, why is everything so complicated?”

“It’s a complicated world. Things are changing. Women’s expectations are different now. Oh, I almost forgot, there’s something else in the Cooper and Cooper notes. Did you know that your buddies Blake and Mortimer are a couple?”

“What? Openly?”

“Yeah. They use “partner” not husband, and they’re only really “out” in London, although they didn’t bother to hide it when they spent Christmas in Scotland. Small town, too. Forget the name.”

“Pitlochry. God dammit, I knew it. And Andre, you have a lot of gall trying to put the brakes on my personal life when those two are off honeymooning in Scotland, flouting all the traditions of the British military and the secret service.”

“Um. Didn’t you flout those traditions?”

“I’m the bad guy!” Erik hisses. “I’m supposed to transgress! My point is that those two are living it up while you’re here squawking like a plucked hen because a nice girl holds my hand on the way home, like I’m supposed to be a monk until I’m 75 again.”

“No, no,no! You misunderstand. Mari just wants you to understand what it’s like for girls. She wants you to grow up to be a good man.”

“And you?”

“Well, the same, kind of. I don’t want you to miss out on anything, especially-” he pauses, reaching for the right way to express it. “Especially when it comes to things that were perhaps less than ideal the first time around. It’s like everything else: you have a chance to get it right this time and that might be difficult because of your lifetime of baggage and the power difference.”

“But you don’t want me to miss out.”

“Not at all! I envy you, in a way. Knowing then what I know now? Game changing, for sure.”

There’s a moment of silence where Andre fears that Erik will hang up in a huff. He isn’t sure how to make himself more clear without insulting his ward. “You’ve never said what you see in this Noelle.”

“You haven’t asked. You’d like her, and so would Mari. She’s a sweet-natured girl, very idealistic but not annoying about it. She’s polite and well-spoken, but she’s a little more tart in French than in English and has a good eye for the absurd. She cracks me up with her take on American life sometimes. She likes a lot of the same things I do. It’s fun to see the world through her eyes. I like hearing about her plans. She’s someone I don’t have to protect, but I wouldn’t mind. Do I have to go on?”

“No. I see where you’re coming from. Maybe I can meet her some time.”

“I would be fine with that. We talked about taking a chaperoned trip to New York when the weather gets better, although god knows when I’ll have time between school and Outdoor Experience coming up, and all these new rehearsals.”

“All these new what now?”

“Didn’t Maddy tell you? I auditioned for the school musical on one of Caleb’s stupid dares and was actually offered a part.”

“Which you took?” Andre can hardly contain his happiness at the news.

“Sure. ‘Yes, and’ and all that, right? The play is called Guys and Dolls. Have you heard of it?”

“Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Hold on, I need to get Mari.”

“Good lord, Andre. The upshot is I’m playing Nicely-Nicely Johnson, which is completely against type, according to Ms. Miller, so she has to transpose the score and rethink some of the business, whatever that means. Are you laughing?”

“Oh, my god. This is the best news ever.”

“We run three nights February 28 to March 2, plus a matinee on the third. Maybe you could come up.”

“My friend, if you think there is a force on earth that will stop me from watching you sing on stage you don’t know me. I will find a way.”

Chapter Text

Gideon isn’t sure what he’s more afraid of: Pinker’s driving or being seen in his disgusting jalopy. Pinker has explained at tedious length that 1989 was by far the best year for the Yugo and that the replacement door - conspicuously red on a blue car - is perfectly good, but the car rattles and Pinker keeps overcorrecting in a way that turns Gideon’s stomach almost as much as the lingering smell of junk food and body odour. He would bet money that Pinker has never cleaned the car but has slept in it at least once.

Pinker skids to a stop on a quiet lane a few turns off Portsmouth Road, snapping Gideon against his seatbelt. It’s only been twenty minutes. Unbelievable. Gideon smooths his hair and steps out of the car, careful to avoid the mud.The camcorder is still safe on the back seat, no thanks to Pinker. The latter takes no care at all with his charity shop boots, focussed as he is on the tool in his hand. It doesn’t look like much, and Pinker has admitted to using a flashlight housing and some vacuum cleaner parts, but that’s just to carry it around. The actual technology is much more sophisticated, based on the Evangely pulse-lamp which was in turn based on the Septimus hypno-disk which Pinker has already reproduced and demonstrated. Pinker is happy to explain the challenges of portability and miniaturization. All he needs is for Gideon to make encouraging noises in return.

“Fascinating, Kevin, just brilliant!” Gideon says as he adjusts the camcorder. “I’m sure it will be amazing, but, um, is this just a test run? I mean, we will get something to show Mr. Atcheson, won’t we?”

Pinker stares at him for a moment before muttering something about unauthorized human trials and ethics concerns and the need to keep such things secret at all costs.

“I’ve chosen the subjects carefully. Nobody who can report. The problem with dealing with the extremely intoxicated is the extra variable. And I wouldn’t be able to show anyone. Because it’s technically a crime.”

“Of course. Very considerate. But you’ve found new, um subjects?” He’s starting to feel the chill.

Pinker nods enthusiastically. “Right over here.” He leads the way to a wire fence and gestures to the field. There’s nothing there but a small flock of sheep and a few shrubs.

As he always does when dealing with his own technology, Pinker becomes authoritative and confident. He directs Gideon to focus the camcorder on him while he prepares, then widens out to include the sheep. When Gideon is ready, Pinker flips a toggle, raises the flashlight housing, and presses the button. There’s an odd, high-pitched crackle, and a large, brown ram flips over. Gideon emits a bark of laughter and the camera shakes. Is that the smell of burnt wool in his nostrils? Before he can say a word Pinker sends another sheep flying.

“Very good, Kevin! Very good!” Gideon looks around for witnesses. “I didn’t realize it worked on animals.”

Apparently Gideon has the wrong idea. He isn’t harnessing the creature’s life force, if you want to call it that, so much as directing and amplifying his own Mega Wave, and probably some of Gideon’s. The hard part is calibrating the force since everyone’s output is slightly different.

While Pinker is explaining the weapon the big ram wiggles its legs and rolls over. Gideon continues rolling the camera as the animal shakes itself and staggers off. It seems to be walking straight, at least for a sheep. In a moment the second sheep rolls over and stands up as well. It starts walking in circles, but maybe that’s something sheep like to do. Gideon switches off the camera.

“Ah, not a lethal weapon then?”

Pinker sucks his teeth. “Not yet. Could be. I might have to sacrifice portability, but it wouldn’t be difficult. This version is a stun weapon. My Mega Cosh.”

Gideon doesn’t roll his eyes. He has Pinker in decent thrall, but the little man is still quite prickly and requires handling. They can work on marketing later, after Atcheson hands over the cash.

“Mega Cosh. Sure. Let’s just review the film before we get going, shall we? I don’t want to have to come back.”

Within minutes Pinker is throwing up drifts of mud as he turns the car around. Before he peels out, Gideon notices that the smaller sheep is still wandering in a wide circle.

***

Within the Order of the Golden Mu there are a number of controversies. Is the Order a new religion or, as Gideon coyly insists, a self-help movement? Is it more important for members to perfect themselves, or focus on the perfection of humanity as a whole? What about eugenics and scientific mate selection, and how do we get more women to join? These are the standard fellowship discussions when the drinks are flowing. After Pinker’s hypno-disk demonstration the debates turned scientific. Members are very interested in measuring their own Mega Waves and hope that one day there will be some kind of megameter for home use. Most of the members are very convinced that they would acquire great powers while maintaining free will if they could tap into their own waves. Very few people within the Order consider the role of The Original Subject the (in)famous Guinea Pig, the most promising and dangerous result of the Mega Wave technology.

Julia Grenfell has not forgotten. Unlike Gideon, she’d reviewed Gilly's presentation and made her own notes. There’s something about the Redwing write-up and clippings that hooks her attention, irritating her like a pebble in her shoe. In a calculated bit of flattery, she’d invited Gilly out for dinner at The Mad Hatter, just the two of them, nice and cosy… and would Gilly mind making a copy of The Book of Mu? Things are so busy now, and with the Atcheson meeting coming up they all need to be prepared; no need to bother Gideon about it, though.

Gilly is already at The Mad Hatter when Julia shows up. She’s looking well, despite her shapeless outfit. In fact, she’s unusually lively and excited. Julia had planned to order a bottle of wine, but she won’t need it to loosen Gilly’s tongue. They barely have time to order before the girl bubbles up. It seems that not only has she brought the book, she’s done a little more research and added to the folder, and she’s noticed something very interesting. Gilly hands over more copies of clippings and waits for Julia’s reaction. They’re articles from Business Week and the Wall Street Journal concerning Redwing.

“Look at the pictures.”

Julia does so. They’re black and white photos. Ivan Ostrovsky is in both of them, although as one of a group. He was a tall, fierce-looking man, very Russian-looking. In the more recent photo he looks like a mean Father Christmas, although it’s clear from the older photo that he once had dark hair. There’s that pebble again.

“Don’t leave me in suspense, sweetie. What am I looking for?”

“Oh, of course, you haven’t looked at the book in a long time. I update it all the time, and… see here.”

Gilly flips to the clipping section of The Book. More pictures, this time of The Subject: grainy photos from London and Paris newspapers and one clearer shot from a history textbook. Julia places her finger over Ostrovsky’s impressive beard. Yes, that’s it. That’s what’s been at the back of her mind these days.

“It could just be a coincidence, but don’t you think it’s strange?” Gilly asks.

“Yes,” Julia answers slowly. “Good eye, Gilly.” She holds the photos closer. “They could be brothers. Twins even, although I think the nose is a bit different.”

“He could have had surgery. The whole business is very suspicious. Ostrovsky immigrated to the United States in the early 70s and there’s almost nothing about his earlier life on record, just some vague reference to military service. Next thing you know, he’s working for the CIA - or so he says - then he starts Redwing. Where did the initial capital come from? How did he grow so fast with such a late start? It doesn’t make sense.”

“You don’t think they’re the same man, do you? It’s a mad idea. The Subject was reported dead in 1971.”

“Reported. No remains were ever found.” Gilly has to make an effort to be still while the waiter brings their drinks. “There was something about that man that made him the ideal guinea pig, some strange resiliency. Did you know he was believed dead five times before he was supposedly blown to bits over the Pacific Ocean?”

Julia nods. She’s actually given this some thought. Gideon and Pinker are confident that they’ll be able to create a working Telecephaloscope, but they’ve never talked about what happens next, not specifically. If they’re going to enhance human potential in a direct, practical way, they’ll need volunteers. It would be nice to know which qualities make a subject particularly able to develop his abilities, and which make a subject controllable.

“Do you want to hear my idea?”

“Oh. Yes, of course. So sorry, Gilly, I was woolgathering. What’s your idea?”

Gilly takes a deep breath. “I distinctly heard my father say the word ‘Redwing’ on the phone, and now we know there's a security and weapons company of that name. It’s owned by a shady Russian immigré and seems to have grown overnight like a mushroom. That tells me that there are deep ties to the CIA and god knows what other agencies. It’s a competitive industry and nobody grows like that without an inside edge. I think that Redwing is researching the Mega Wave technology for military applications, very likely in collaboration with the American government, or at least with the government’s tacit permission.”

Julia would have been less surprised if Gilly had slapped her, not at the reasoning, but at Gilly’s confidence. “Very impressive, my dear. Is there more?”

“Mmmm Yes, but this is more conjecture. Redwing is an agile little company, Parthenon is an established giant, known all over the world. They’re in the same business, but not really competitors, if you see what I mean. But if Redwing is working with the government on a technology with this potential, it’s a real threat to Mr. Atcheson. It’s something that could be an incredible springboard for Redwing. Now, what if Ivan Ostrovsky was interested in the Mega Wave in the first place because of a personal connection? What if he really has a connection to…” Gilly lowers her voice to a whisper. “Colonel Olrik? Maybe he isn’t the same man, but he might be a close relative. Maybe this is old history somehow coming back.” Gilly takes a big sip of wine to ease her throat. This is the most she’s spoken in several weeks.

“He was the right age,” Julia murmurs. My god. What would it be like to work with the original Guinea Pig? His powers were beyond belief and, according to some writings, untapped. Imagine coupling immense power with free will. She shakes her head. “But it’s impossible!”

“Stalin had at least five biological children. Mao Zedong had ten that he acknowledged. Nicolae Ceaușescu had three and was married to the same woman for more than forty years.”

“Until they were very romantically executed together. But I see what you’re saying. Just because The Subject had no known relatives doesn’t mean he rose up out of the sea foam.”

“Mmhm. I don’t think it’s terribly important, but we might want to bring it up with Mr. Atcheson. It could motivate him to help Father Gideon. If he needs motivation.”

“I’d hold that card back, I think. No point in throwing a rival in the man’s face, even a dead one. And we don’t want to be too fanciful with Mr. Atcheson.”

“Oh, of course!” Gilly shrugs. “It is all rather silly. You could probably go to any place in Eastern Europe and find lots of men who look like, uh, The Subject. It’s very interesting, but it’s probably just a funny coincidence.”

“That’s my opinion as well. We’re going to be asking rather a lot of Mr. Atcheson and, to be frank, both dear Gideon and Mr. Pinker can come across as a bit… extravagant. We’ll have to anchor the meeting. I know I can count on you to be a reassuring presence.”

Gilly beams back at her. Of course she will be on Julia’s team forever. “Father Gideon will be great, I just know it. And Mr. Pinker can be very impressive when he’s focussed on his inventions. Mmm. This wine is so tasty.” Gilly finishes her glass. “I think the meeting will be a great success, and if Mr. Atcheson doesn’t have the good sense to back Father Gideon, then maybe we can go to these Redwing people.”

***

Erik and Andre pointedly avoid talking about “the girl situation” as Andre thinks of it, although Erik does ask to speak with Maribella privately. Whatever they have to say only takes ten minutes and Mari says she’s sworn to secrecy. Without actively snooping, Andre does get a bit of information from checking in with Maddy, ostensibly to talk about travel plans, spring break, and the like. She’s very pleased that Erik has found such a polite, interesting girl. She and Marcus made a point of meeting the host family and they were very friendly, especially after Maddy signed books for Sheila Holmes. Marcus also had a man-to-man talk with Erik because who knows where he’s been getting his sex education, right?

“And how did he take that?”

“Oh, it was fine. He thanked Marcus for taking the trouble, actually. Erik was pretty well-versed on the mechanics, thanks heavens, but they did talk about relationships for a long time. Marcus didn’t tell me everything, of course.”

Andre suppresses a chuckle at the “pretty well-versed” and asks Maddy what she thinks about the two kids getting together.

“Oh, it seems real, or as real as anything is at that age. I don’t think either is taking it too seriously. They’re so young and she’ll be going home in a few months anyway. But I’m glad they got together. It seems to be good for both of them. Don’t tell him I told you this, but it was the cutest thing. The other night I walked in on them spooning on the couch.”

“Oh, no!”

“Andre, they were fully clothed and sound asleep. They’d been watching a movie and just dropped off. I had to wake them to get Noelle home on time.”

Andre decides that he no longer wants to know specifics about Erik’s relationship. Personally, if Andre could relive his teens, he wouldn’t bother with an innocent romance because he’d be too busy investing his paper route money, but Ivan was of a very different time and place and whatever went on his past didn’t include skating and hot chocolate or watching videos with a girlfriend. If Erik wants to make up for whatever he missed back then, Andre can’t reasonably object as long as he doesn’t hurt anyone.

When Maribella asks if there’s a rift between the two of them, Andre can honestly answer no. Erik is busier than ever and he’d rather spend his Friday evenings with Noelle than on the phone with his guardian. When they do talk it’s at odd times, and often on the work line. Erik seems completely wrapped up in his own life, although there is something on his mind that requires consultation with Maribella, and that’s his plan for spring break.

“Of course he will visit us.”

“Yes. And he wants to bring his little friend.”

Maribella nearly does a spit-take. “To stay overnight? I mean… bold! But I’m okay with it if her parents are, as long as they keep to house rules. He can sleep on the couch. What do Maddy and Marcus say?”

Maddy and Marcus are fine with it. Their big worry is transportation and all the complications. The idea is for Erik and Noelle to drive down with Candice and Caleb Moore. Noelle would spend a few days in the city before getting on a plane back home, and Erik would fly back on his own as the Moores are not sure of their schedule. Candice is thinking of moving back to New York City with Caleb who is not entirely on board. It seems she used to work on a New York based soap opera called The Fair and the Fame playing someone called Rosamund Fair, and is in talks to go back.

“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! Erik’s buddy’s mother is Candice Cummings? I used to watch that show after school all the time. I can’t believe it’s still on. Her character died in a mysterious helicopter crash, although they never found the body. ”
“Apparently they’re thinking of raising her from the dead. You’ll get to meet her if it works out. Erik would stay with us a little longer and get back on the Friday.”

“Sounds okay.”

“So he can celebrate his sixteenth birthday at home.”

“Oh, god, that’s right. The twenty-fourth? We’ll have to do something special. Ask him what he wants next time you talk, and we can make a reservation or whatever.”

“You want to double date?”

“That would be hilarious and I am almost indecently curious, but let’s not put any pressure on them. We’ll just take the kids somewhere nice for dinner and leave them be. I do wonder what kind of girl he’s found to put up with him.”

“Oh, me too.” But for very different reasons, Andre adds to himself.

***

All the way to London Gideon lectures his companions on how to behave and what to expect. As their leader and only representative of the aristocracy, he considers it his duty: they are to remain as quiet as possible and follow his lead; Atcheson will likely be late, rude, and high-handed; as rich as he is, the old man will be looking out for his own interests; they are not to agree on anything; they are not to joke or make light in any way, even if Atcheson seems friendly. The old man will be cagey, wily, imperious, and erratic. He will play with their hopes for his own amusement. The key is to make him think that everything is own idea and in his own interest.

As Gideon holds forth in his cousin’s Bentley Arnage, Julia thinks of every customer who’s assumed her money topped Julia’s dignity. Does Gideon really think he’s the only person who’s dealt with unreasonable, entitled people? Does he somehow not realize he’s exactly the kind of person he’s talking about? No matter. Let him drone on. It keeps him amused and Gilly and Pinker quiet. She’d have to bail out of the car entirely if they’d started up as well, but they both seem utterly enthralled, god help them. She glances sideways at Gilly and congratulates herself. At Julia’s urging she’d visited one of Guildford’s smarter boutiques and put herself in the manager’s hands. Her new coat and skirt suit is nothing spectacular, but it’s a huge improvement over her usual pastel tents. The shorter haircut was Gilly’s idea, but Julia gives herself credit there as well. Thanks to Julia’s mentoring she’s looking better, making more sense, and even thinking for herself, although not enough to be annoying. Gideon is blathering on about drinks etiquette, so Julia amuses herself with coming up with new potential improvement for her little side project. Voice lessons perhaps? Yoga for posture? So many possibilities.

Pinker is ill at ease in his new black suit. It had been Gideon’s idea. A genius shouldn’t have to worry about such things, he’d said, but alas, we do not live in a world that readily recognizes genius. Until Pinker’s gifts are universally acknowledged he’ll have to shave and shower and dress like a normie. Kevin knows he looks good, or at least much better than usual, but several days of fretting about his appearance and presentation has revived bad memories. All the shit behaviour Gideon attributes to the very rich is endemic in academia as well. Pinkers feels anger and anxiety rise in his throat. His palms start to sweat. He hears Gideon say his name.

“What did you say? I missed that last bit.”

“I was just saying that if you can repeat the amazing performance of the night you showed us the hypno-disk we’ll be in clover.” Gideon moves on to the etiquette of alcohol consumption, which holds no interest for Pinker who sticks to beer and whatever drugs Gideon offers during their personal communion time. He remembers how they’d all lined up to get their brains zapped on that strange night and relaxes. It will be fine. Gideon and Julia know what they’re doing, and Gilly will smooth everything over. They will make Atcheson recognize the brilliance of The Great Work.

Gideon is blessed with a low-pitched speaking voice, pleasant and soothing to the ear and quite unlike the ringing tone he uses for sermons. Gilly allows his monologue to recede until it’s mere background music. Gideon had made a few relevant points, but Gilly hasn’t watched her father her entire life without picking up a few techniques. She recalls a long-ago interrogation when her father suspected her of stealing pocket change he’d left on his bureau. She’d been on the verge of confessing just to make it stop when her mother had handed him the money. “Hector, do I need to buy you a piggy bank? I found this on the floor.” After that she’d noticed how her father talked to people, how he tended to get his teeth into someone and worry them like a terrier. When mother was still well she could joke him out of it, most of the time.

Despite her comparatively lowly status in The Order, Gilly is in charge of the treasure for this meeting. Her slim little briefcase - another new purchase - holds The Book of Mu, a crude estimate of a budget, a reporter's notebook, and plenty of sharpened pencils. Her job is to support Julia in making the financial case and take notes. It will be almost like when her mother had people over for tea. Julia will preside, and Gilly will help and watch from a corner. She can certainly do that much.

They finally arrive at The Goring Hotel, which Pinker deems nothing special until they step inside. For a moment he is overwhelmed with anxiety, but then Gilly mentions that she’s been here a few times with her parents.

“The veranda is very nice, and they have terrific fish and chips. If the meeting goes long we could have dinner there.”

Pinker relaxes. This is just a meeting. They need something, but they won’t die if they don’t get it. Besides, Atcheson is an idiot if he can’t spot a gold mine when it’s shoved in his face. Gideon and Julia look calm enough, and Gilly is thinking about food. Why should he freak outt?

The concierge directs them to a small, well-lit meeting room with silver wallpaper where one of Atcheson’s assistants is waiting. Mr. Atcheson will be down shortly, unless they’d rather just leave their proposal and wait for a call. Gideon shrugs and gathers his little group around the table. They start talking about the weather, travel, pets, anything but business, and after a few minutes the assistant is bored enough to call the suite. Atcheson shows up with two bodyguards and a slit for a smile. He sits without offering to shake hands and when Gideon speaks he keeps his eyes on Julia and Gilly. Both women maintain placid smiles, just as they’d discussed.

Gideon reviews the aims of The Order, particularly the ones that overlap with Atcheson’s Christmas lecture: productive, loyal citizenry, peak physical performance, an elite ruling class based on intellectual merit. Atcheson barely reacts, but his assistant - a pale, grey man who could be 40 or 60 asks questions, mostly about their education and backgrounds. Julia realizes what he’s getting out and mentions that it’s an odd coincidence that their little group has Scottish and Norman ancestry in common. (Not Jewish, you hideous cadaver, she says to herself.)

Pinker is up. He sticks to his script: a two-minute summary of the Mega Wave history and another three on its potential in defence and social engineering. Then he sets up the video camera and presses play. Atcheson raises his eyebrows when the sheep fall over, the strongest reaction he’s had so far.

“Good trick. Does it work on people?”

“It does.”

“And this, whaddya call it? Hypno-disk? It works?”

Pinker nods.

“Well, let’s see you zap someone with it.”

Pinker tilts his head thoughtfully. “For ethical reasons, I would require an informed volunteer.”

“Madison.”

The grey man looks miserable, but not surprised. “All right, sir.”

Gilly has the hypno-disk ready, and hands it to Pinker.

“You might want to sit down for this.”

Madison does so and before he can brace himself Pinker flips the switch. The grey man swoons, and nearly slips off the chair before he’s grabbed by a bodyguard. Pinker removes the device with a flourish. They wait.

Within two minutes Madison regains consciousness. He doesn’t recall anything that happened after he arrived in the meeting room. He staggers a little when he gets up, but only the bodyguard notices.

“Not bad,” Atcheson admits. “What about the thing in your little movie? Does it work on people?”

“It’s much more potent. I wouldn’t try it on anyone here, but perhaps if we had volunteers drawn from military recruits, or the police,”

“Yeah, but do you have it with you?”

Gilly hands it to Pinker who in turn places it gingerly in Atcheson’s hands. The old man turns it about, then takes it to the French doors to examine it in better light. He steps onto the balcony, aims the device, and pulls the trigger, just as Pinker had in the video. There’s a muffled moan and a thud. Atcheson steps inside and backs away from the window. Gilly is on her feet, about to protest when Julia snatches her hand and pulls her back.

“Looks like it works on people just fine,” Atcheson says, handing the device back. “All right, I’m interested. How much?”

Gilly passes copies of the financial estimates to Atcheson and Madison, then edges over to the balcony doors. One of the porters is sitting on the front steps, attended by his fellows. He’s alive, at any rate.

“You can’t be soft in this business, girlie,” Atcheson growls from his chair. “You need to revise these figures. I won’t back this play unless you’re on my territory. Add travel and lodging and get back to Madison. And make it quick before I lose interest.”

Julia has had enough. Atcheson has been very rude and shooting a hotel employee is the kind of flashy behaviour she can’t abide. “Of course, Mr. Atcheson. We hope to begin working together very soon and have no intention of wasting time with other interested parties.”

Atcheson glares at Julia’s impassive face, then at Gideon, Pinker, and Gilly whose eyes have gone very wide. “Interested parties. Suppose you tell me about these interested parties.”

Gilly catches Julia’s tiny nod and musters her courage. “We have reason to suspect that a small military contractor based in New York City is researching the Mega Wave technology. Redwing Corporation? Perhaps you’ve heard of them?”

“I’ve heard of them.” Atcheson grins, showing a mouthful of overwhite dentures. “Pissant organization.Founder’s been dead for more than a year.”

“Yes, I saw that in my research.” Gilly smiles back. She speaks slowly and softly, keeping her nerves in check. Don’t act smart. He can’t actually eat you. “But they’ve come to the attention of British intelligence in the last few months in connection with the Mega Wave. We’re quite certain of that. And that probably means the CIA is involved as well, don’t you think?”

“Hmph. A two-bit outfit, run by foreigners and women. The heir is a fucking baby.” Atcheson looks Gilly up and down for an insultingly long moment. “I wouldn’t worry about that raggedy black bird, girlie.” He snaps his fingers at Madison and walks out with his bodyguards. Madison gives cards to Julia and Gilly, assuming correctly that they will be handling this business. He quickly shakes hands with the men and scuttles after his employer, leaving the four order members on their own. Gideon releases a deep sigh and shakes out his arms.

“That went better than I’d expected. Jesus. Kevin, what about relocation? Is that a problem?”

“I think not. Not if done correctly. In fact, it might be easier if Parthenon can supply parts and a place with adequate power. Power is key. Can we bring the prototypes?” He starts muttering to himself, calculating in his head as he circles the room

Julia is glaring at the fireplace, arms crossed. “What the hell am I supposed to do, Gideon? You can’t do this without me and I can’t leave the shop. It’s a ridiculous imposition!”

Gideon tries to corral Pinker and soothe Julia, without much luck. Gilly looks out the balcony window again. No sign of the porter. She’s lost interest in dining with her friends at the hotel and only wants to go home. She has no particular interest in going to the United States just now either, but that doesn’t mean she can’t help The Order.

“I can do it.”

“Do what, dear?” Julia asks, exasperated.

“I can run the shop while you go. Let me shadow you for a week or two and I can take care of everything, even the house if you like. It won’t be a problem at all.”

Julia is bemused. “But what about school, sweetie? You can’t expect to take classes and run a business, even with my guidance. It’s not possible.”

“I’m done with school. Didn’t I mention it? My last exam is next week. Why shouldn’t I use my degree?”

Julia doesn’t say no, but she doesn’t say yes either. She isn’t quite sure what to make of Gilly’s offer, but right now Gideon is herding them out the door and handing out tips. The prospect of real funding has made him prematurely generous.

“Come on, everyone. I have to get the car back and we can talk as we go. We’re on the way to success! Be happy! It will all work out.”

Gilly trails behind, still a bit dazed. She had expected Atcheson to be an unpleasant person, but his manners! The way he’d shot an unknown weapon at a total stranger. She’ll have to research more about Parthenon, especially any lawsuits or legal difficulties. And what had he said about a child being the heir of Redwing? Ivan Ostrovsky had died an old man. Did he really sire an infant in his seventies? She’ll have to look into that as well. If the others really do go to American her evenings will be long and quiet.

***

Sometimes Francis Blake feels like he’s throwing bottled messages into the ocean all day. MI5 has asked him to focus on IRA activity, so that’s what he’s doing and he’s doing it well. There’s been an uptick in chatter about a major assault on a commercial target in London, something big, and soon. Blake has quite literally drawn circles around sites of likely weapon stockpiles and has named five individuals worth watching. He’s passed on his information and recommendations and in return he’s received polite thanks and a brush-off. Something is definitely off. Blake suspects that Director Montrose doesn’t trust him, either for what’s now fairly common knowledge about his relationship with Phillip, or because Blake is viewed as one of Honeychurch’s pet agents.

Whatever the case, Blake finds himself analyzing data well out of the way of his colleagues and far from the field he misses so much. He’s had to increase his hand-to-hand combat and shooting practice just to stay in shape. In the old days he hardly had time to recover between adventures. Blake doesn’t miss the regular concussions, but there’s got to be something more interesting to do than read files and intercept calls. A nice dangerous, desert mission sounds like a vacation on a dark January day with snow in the forecast.

Fortunately, Mark Dalton doesn’t share Montrose’s prejudices and has been very decent on keeping him in the loop on The Golden Mu business, including what little he knows about the heir to Redwing. No major developments, but at least today Blake has something amusing to share with Mortimer.

The flat is warm and bright and smells of curry when Blake gets home. He pours two glasses of wine and passes one to Phillip, who has set up the rice cooker. He’s been experimenting with the dishes of his youth, which has resulted in an explosion of spices in the pantry and a lot of leftovers for lunch.

“No idea if this goes with what you’re cooking, but it seems like a wine night.”

“Ach, so cold out! I wanted to make something with a bit of a kick to it. Be ready in an hour.” He gives Francis a kiss and takes his seat by the fire. They go over the events of the day, as usual. One of Mortimer’s new colleagues has introduced him to an engineer at Wavegen in Inverness, and he’s trying to arrange a site visit to learn more about the potential for ocean wave energy. Perhaps they could go as part of another holiday in Pitlochry? It sounds fascinating.

“You’re so busy these days, Phillip. I almost hate to ask you a favour.”

“I am never too busy. You know that.”

Blake smiles and pulls a folded brochure from his pocket. “That is excellent news, as I may have already arranged for you to attend a lecture on February 8. It’s at Imperial College. Not far.”

“The role of statistical analysis in earthquake related harm reduction. My goodness, Francis. It sounds very worthwhile, but it’s hardly my field.”

“Note the name of the speaker. Michael Wattell is just shy of twenty-seven years old and his work is already garnering notice. He also happens to be the foster brother of one Ivan Erik Ostovsky.”

Mortimer laughs. “Ah, I see. Do you think he has the potential to be dangerous?”

“Highly doubtful. Very highly doubtful, actually, but since he’s in London I thought, why not? You’ll be the guest of Professor Barbara Donaldson, who will introduce you to this young prodigy afterwards. I don’t expect you to tail him or anything, just give me your impressions.”

“Very well, Francis. It sounds like it might be an interesting afternoon, at least if I can make heads or tails out of the talk. Is there any other news about our little friend?”

“Not much. It’s like he’s being ordinary out of spite, which I have to admit would be unlike Olrik, or Ivan for that matter.”

“If only he’d get in a few fights, or fail a few classes, or smuggle a few antiquities.”

“Have you heard of something called Guys and Dolls?”

“Can’t say I have. It sounds like a toy company. Or a club with a select clientele.”

“It’s a Broadway musical that was made into a film in the 50s. Apparently it’s now a mainstay in the theatre departments of American schools from coast to coast.”

“Are you telling me…”

“He’s in it. Quite a big part, too. Lots of songs. Maybe some dancing. Who knows?”

Phillip has to put his wine down for a good two minutes. Blake watches him laugh, pleased with himself for making this news such a gift for Phillip.

“You’re imaging Olrik on stage, aren’t you? Straw boater clasped to his chest? Doing a little soft shoe?” Of course, Phillip laughs even harder.

“If only he’d focused his talents on acting! How much better for the world. Although he would have been an insufferable ham.”

“He’d have found a way to be insufferable no matter where he landed. Maybe I should see if someone can get a recording of the performance? For research purposes, I mean.”

“Oh, Francis. I don’t ask you for much.”

“Debatable! But I’ll see what I can do.”

Chapter Text

One wouldn’t think it to look at him, but Willard Madison gets a lot of amusement out of his job. Sure, Mr. Atcheson is a handful and perpetrates at least one outrage a week, but Madison enjoys these as long as they’re not directed at him. He had almost cracked up when Atcheson shot that porter from the balcony; the look on the little Montrose girl’s face alone was worth the meeting. Now he’s having fun watching the Golden Mu group try to get one over on Mr. Atcheson. Parthenon has agreed to every request: travel documents; relocation expenses; housing; equipment; security; a monthly stipend for each one of the four; Pinker the inventor (the single gleam of real gold in the whole pan) is to receive patents and public credit, and a cut of the gross profits. Fox-Devereux and the Grenfell woman will get funding for their absurd cult. In return, Parthenon gets exclusive rights to make and market everything Pinker invents, with all the standard clauses about parting ways and non-competition.

Fox-Devereux had become quite greedy, requiring a new model vehicle and a wardrobe allowance. Julia had - quite reasonably in Madison’s opinion - insisted on a housekeeper. That granted, she had demanded funds for a personal stylist and a spiritual advisor. Fine. They keep padding the bill under the assumption that they’re outsmarting Mr. Atcheson, and Madison keeps signing off, knowing that this is just one of his employer’s many pet projects and that, however absurd their budget, Atcheson’s total outlay is, for him, the equivalent of what most people keep in a change jar.

Pinker’s demands are actually the most costly, but they’re for things like carbon nanotubes, silver alloy components, teflon coated sheeting, a laser guidance system, and a number of things Madison has never heard of. When Madison had asked him if he had any more personal requests, Pinker had mumbled something about a steady supply of beef jerky before launching into his third monologue about a massive power supply being absolutely necessary. Madison had also very subtly broached the idea of Pinker coming to the U.S. on his own, but the scientist had panicked at the very idea. He needs Fox-Devereux for some reason, and Fox-Devereux needs his Julia, god knows why.

Madison doesn’t care. Pinker’s handlers will live off Parthenon money for a few months, maybe a year, and when the time is right, Atcheson will assert his will on them. Madison has seen this many times. If they’re lucky, they will either be absorbed within the Parthenon empire. Perhaps Mr. Atcheson will allow them some small role in the project. If they’re not lucky, they will be dismissed with no recourse and end up bankrupt, baffled, disgraced. Pinker will be separated from the others and put to work. Madison has made a little bet with himself that Fox-Devereux and his lady friend will flee back home with their tails between their legs within six months. Pinker will stay but he will not, as Atcheson hopes, create a race of obedient super soldiers. Instead he’ll make plenty of deadly little toys for the company before he dies, probably of autoerotic asphyxiation. Madison has written his predictions in the journal where he documents all of Mr. Atcheson’s crazes from life extension, to levitation, to telekinesis and a baker’s dozen of quack spiritualities. One day it will end up in his book, if he manages to outlive the old man.

***

On the last Monday of January, Gilly Montrose writes her employment law final, returns her library books, and withdraws from university. Instead of paying spring tuition, she picks up the graduation paperwork, and is urged to book her tickets and arrange photographs early. Gilly smiles and nods, even when the perfectly lovely clerk mentions the need for shoes that won’t get stuck on the lawn. Gilly will be pleased enough to have a qualification to show for all her hard work, but can’t imagine her parents being interested in the ceremony. It’s not as if Julia and Gideon will be back home by July.

Julia had entertained the idea of guiding the boys from an ocean away for two whole days before agreeing to join them. She’s afraid that the men will somehow get into trouble if it’s just him and Pinker. Gilly has more faith in Father Gideon but she doesn’t blame Julia for wanting to be a part of the experiments. This is the great work Father Gideon has been talking about all this time. Gilly experiences a kind of vertigo when she thinks of the possibilities; human beings, enhanced and enlightened, stronger, faster, protected by their personal force fields. What would it be like to stride the world with confidence? She tries to imagine herself with superpowers, scaling the Tower of London in a catsuit like Diana Rigg in the old Avengers program. Then her shoe catches on a hidden mole hole and sends her staggering across the green before she can recover.

Red-faced, Gilly hurries to the bus stop. She’d expected to feel liberated after finishing with school, but instead she’s sad and empty. Within a week her best friends in the world will be an ocean away and she will be left in Guildford taking care of all the mundane business of life while they change the world. What she should do right now is get a quick lunch and head to Charisma to get busy. Julia’s shop is not a complicated business, but Gilly wants to get everything right. They also need to arrange signing authorities and figure out all of Gilly’s duties beyond the shop itself. Julia wants Gilly to move into her house to be close to the store. Gilly doesn’t want to leave her roommates in a bind, but Julia is pretty sure she can get Mr. Madison to cover that. He’s already promised to pay Gilly’s salary to manage the store for six months, three in advance.

Then there’s the problem of what to do with The Order headquarters. Father Gideon has already announced to his flock that he will soon be spreading the word abroad. Naturally, the congregants had been disappointed, but Gideon had promised them that he would be back, stronger than ever, and had dangled the idea of some of the more worthy members joining them in America when he’s smoothed the path. There had been loose talk of keeping the meetings going, but Gideon had extinguished that idea in a hurry; nobody will wear his crown until he returns. Also, he doesn’t want people milling around headquarters unattended. He might not take the best care of it, but the Weybridge house is the one thing he actually owns. Gilly hates to see him fret and wants to take the worry off his hands, but she’s too shy to offer. Maybe Julia would ask for her. With her friends away, Gilly won’t have much to do with her evenings, and she’d be glad to check on Gideon’s house, make sure the bills are paid.

Julia will know what to do. She’s already negotiated an incredible deal with Mr. Atcheson’s agent, pre-ordered most of the spring inventory, and made a list of all the contractors Gilly might need for the house and business. Gilly was particularly touched when Julia had given Pinker permission to leave his Yugo in her garage. It’s an ugly car, but it’s all he has, except for his prototypes which will be making the trip with him. Gilly supposes she will have to drive the thing once a week or so to keep it alive.

That’s a cheering thought. Between the shop and the houses Gilly will have something to do every day, and while her work isn’t as important as theirs, at least her friends won’t have to worry about everything they leave behind. Maybe if it goes well, she’ll be able to visit them, at least for a few days, and witness their success. One day, when she’s a very old lady still in good health thanks to Mega Wave technology, Gilly will explain to her great, great grandchildren how she was a small part of history. The records and notes she’s keeping right now will be in national archives; maybe Father Gideon will thank her in one of his future books, or even include her in a dedication. Gilly resolves to stop being so selfish and content herself with her role. Her father likes to say that all work has dignity so there’s no excuse for being unhappy with your job. For the first time Gilly thinks there may be something to that.

***

J.T.’s 16th birthday party is the closest thing to a cocktail party Erik has attended in years. The whole basement has been decorated and divided into sections to encourage the guests to mingle. They’ve hung coloured lights and put a big rubber mat down in the laundry area to create a dance floor. All of Mr. MacGregor’s tools have been locked up so punch and snacks can be served out of his workshop, and the Murphy bed in the guest room has been raised so the kids can sprawl over bean bag chairs and watch movies. J.T.’s parents are keeping to themselves, but his kid brother pops in with a tray of snacks from time to time and snoops until J.T. scoots him back upstairs. Erik has seen plenty of butlers who are less efficient and more inclined to help themselves to canapés.

Noelle is wearing a simple navy blue dress with gathers along the side and has put her hair up in a way that looks both artful and disheveled. Erik realizes for the first time that she will be a striking woman when she gets used to her height and learns to make the most of her sharp features. How did he miss that? She already knows how to accept a compliment gracefully and amuse herself, skills that elude many adults. She doesn’t cling to him or play silly games to make him jealous, and when he brings her a cup of punch she gives him a little kiss of thanks. He’s been with women in their forties who were less mature, although never for longer than a weekend.

Erik watches her charm J.T.’s cousin and her friends and finds himself wondering if he can somehow continue this relationship into adulthood - obvious adulthood. When they first met, the knowledge that she’d be flying back to France in three months was part of the attraction; now he finds himself wishing she was staying longer. It’s a shame she’s here for the worst weather of the year. They’ve been winter camping with her host family and it was fine, but it would be so much better if they could at least enjoy spring together. He has no intention of settling down - in fact, he’s already planning several years of promiscuity when he hits his physical peak - but what if Noelle became part of his life for the long haul? What if many years from now they find that they suit each other, or just meet from time to time? It’s not like he’ll spend his prime evading the law this time, and that means he may have to actually cultivate friends as well as family.

Erik breaks out of his own thoughts when J.T. swats his arm.

“You’re staring, man. Not that I blame you. The ladies look good tonight.”

“Yeah, sorry. I’m just surprised at how, um, college age, Noelle looks. It’s strange what girls can do with a bit of makeup and a dress. Amy looks nice.” Amy is wearing a dark pink sweater with a silver miniskirt that reminds Erik of what young mod girls wore in the sixties.

“She’s the best. Hey, thanks for all the CDs! Great choices.”

“Glad you like them. They’re from Noelle, too.”

“Cool. Hey, too bad she’s going back home so soon.”

“Mmm. Time flies. We’re talking about me visiting Brest in the summer. No idea if it will work out.”

“That would be great! It looks like my cousin Janie is boring her to death.You should probably go play hero.”

“Good eye, I’ll ask her to dance. Happy birthday, man.”

J.T. gives him another whack as thanks and decides to test the punch to make sure it hasn’t been spiked. If his guests want to supplement their own drinks or share a joint in the alleyway, they’re welcome, but the house has to stay PG-13, especially with Robbie popping in all the time. He pours himself a cup and gets one for Amy who is dancing by herself. He wants to tell her what Erik said about visiting France; this is new information and if there’s anything Amy loves, it’s keeping tabs on her friends. Like a lot of young people in love, J.T. is of the opinion that everyone should pair up, so he’s all for Erik and Noelle. Erik is nicer with Noelle around, and Amy has stopped trying to set him up, or more annoyingly, suggesting that he’s not interested in girls at all. He doesn’t like to think what would happen if Amy tried to get Erik to date one of the guys in that play he’s doing.

Erik and Noelle stay at the party until just after midnight. Erik helps her find her boots in the piles and they say their goodbyes, being careful to thank Mr. MacGregor and Dr. Elkin on the way out. Erik is more aware than his peers of who funds and organizes these parties; his own 16th birthday is two months away and Marcus and Maddy are already talking about it.

On the way home, Noelle is oddly quiet. She’s never talked much about her family, but now it comes out in ragged breaths and awkward laughter. She meant what she said about inviting him to Brest, but things are strange and they’ve only been dating a few weeks and it might be really bad anyway. Her parents are splitting up because her father is, as she puts it, cheating on her mother with god. After nineteen years of marriage he’s decided to take religious orders. Her mother is furious and they’re fighting about everything, especially the family business, a ship repair company that’s been in her mother’s family for three generations. Noelle’s younger brother has been staying with her maternal grandparents since November. With René gone she felt trapped between her warring parents, and applied for the student exchange at the last minute with almost no preparation. She was only accepted because the winner had an emergency appendectomy, and he’ll recover in time to replace her after spring break. She doesn’t even want to go home, but feels guilty for wanting to stay.

It’s getting awfully cold to be outside so late and Erik would like to hustle home, but he remembers a bit of Maribella’s advice and decides to just listen as Noelle describes how her father went from attending church twice a year to devoting days to silent prayer and fasting. He wants to sell the business and donate his share to the church, and her mother will use his dead body for chum before she allows that. She makes it all sound kind of funny, but her voice is tight and she keeps looking at him sideways, gauging his reaction.

“They are trying, but they are doing a very bad job. René is angry and won’t talk. My mother is angry and talks always. My father is crazy. I would like to stay here until it is all done, but they are my family and I can’t abandon them.”

Erik puts his arm around her. “That sounds super unfair. They’re the adults, why should they put all this garbage on you?”

It was the right thing to say. Noelle leans against him and they watch the snow fall for a while before moving on. Erik tells her that she’s handling the situation well, that none of it is her fault. It would serve them right if she indulged in what the teachers call “risk behaviours” but he knows she won’t; she’s too good for that. Maybe if he can’t visit her, she can visit him? Would she like him to ask the Wattells? Or better yet, she could come over and explain the situation to Marcus and Maddy, who always know what to do?

Noelle isn’t optimistic, but even the idea of having options is a distraction. They’ve been having fun skiing and skating, but what is there to do in the summer, she wants to know. Erik tells her all about the cabin and how much he loved it last year. She could borrow Sarah’s bike and they could ride to Tifft or the shore, or maybe visit Malcolm Browning on his farm. He’ll have his license by then too, which would help. And maybe if he does go to Brest her family will be on their best behaviour with a normal amount of talking at a normal volume. That at least gets a laugh.

When they finally say goodbye at her door Noelle is feeling better but Erik is troubled and isn’t sure why. So far his relationship with Noelle has been fun and games with a level of physical intimacy innocent even for their (her) age, and now it feels wrong. He remembers what Dr. Brock has taught him about analyzing his reactions. All right, give it a shot. It’s not what she told him about her family; he’s been a witness to the Moore family chaos and Caleb’s life is not even the messiest in his peer group. It’s not that she’s ambivalent about visiting; they’ve only known each other a few weeks and his days of flying a paramour to Istanbul for the weekend are on hold. Was it because she looked so adult with her hair up? Maybe. The double track of his present situation and his chronological age will never not be strange, but that’s not new. He can’t fault himself on the boyfriend front either; she had a problem, he’d listened, made suggestions, and left her feeling better. He doubts if even Maribella would have notes on his performance.

The ten minutes it takes to walk home aren’tenough to solve his puzzle, so he sets it aside. Obviously it isn’t something that the wisdom of age can solve, so he requires another perspective and he isn’t about to get that now. He’ll talk to Marcus man-to-man before Noelle comes over tomorrow morning, and if that doesn’t work, he’ll bring it up with Dr. Brock or Andre. If none of that helps he’ll approach Maribella. She tends to gloat a bit when giving what she calls “normal human lessons” but her advice has been effective so far.

***

It’s a good thing that Julia has never been an accumulator. Her pictures and vital documents fit easily in the lockable trunk that doubles as a window seat, and she can leave most of her clothes and books right where they are. Julia doubts if Gilly will set foot in her vacant bedroom or touch any of the books on her shelves; the girl has never struck her as a big reader. Between managing Charisma, finding a renter for Gideon’s place, and making sure Pinker’s car doesn’t collapse into a pile of rust, GIlly will be too busy to snoop.

With all justice to Gilly, Julia has to admit that she is picking up the business quickly. Not that Charisma is on par with British Petroleum or anything, but there’s a lot of little things to remember. Gilly understands it all readily enough, so she didn’t completely waste her four-plus years in university. Julia had told Allison very firmly that she is to defer to Gilly and has left stacks of notes in her planner. Of course, Gilly can always call Julia once they’re settled in and have the new phones Madison has promised. Julia will book a ticket home instantly if she has to. As far as the business goes, she’s done all she can to prepare.

Of course Julia’s packing is also well in hand. Unlike Gideon, who is still dithering over what image he wants to present to potential American congregants, Julia has laid out eight simple coordinating pieces plus some jeans and sturdy walking shoes, as they’ll be working from the boondocks of upstate New York. Her passport and international drivers’ license are up to date, her personal items fit in one makeup bag, and she’s not bringing any jewelry except her square diamond studs. Madison will provide a television and computer and presumably there will be a library or bookstore within an hour's drive. She’ll bring the study of sacred geography that’s been absorbing her free time lately, and of course, her classic Rider deck.

Perhaps she should do just one session before cleansing and blessing the cards. Yes, excellent idea. Do a guidance for change reading and then put a niggling question to the deck. Julia has been practicing the tarot for many years, mostly as a meditative aid, but lately more to access hidden knowledge. She hasn’t told anyone, but she believes something in the universe has opened a door for The Order to succeed, and her with it. Is it possible that she has achieved access to her own Mega Wave without the aid of technology, through meditation and study? It seems unlikely, but it would explain the surge of power and insight she has lately experienced.

Julia sets her scene, breathes in four parts, and lays out the cards face down in the correct spread, preferring to absorb the messages as they come. The first card is very promising: the hierophant indicating that her course of action lies with commitment, corporate structure, and spiritual authority. This makes sense given her new relationship with Parthenon. Now, where to look for assistance? Julia turns over the page of cups and smiles. This is a card she has associated with Gilly since meeting the girl; loyalty and vulnerability, that’s our Gilly. Higher guidance comes from the two of wands. Odd, but perhaps it will become clear when the whole spread is unveiled. The fourth card is the four of coins, indicating that Julia may have to let go of stability, solitude, and peace, at least for now. That only makes sense if she’s to go abroad and work closely with Gideon and Pinker. One hopes it won’t be for very long.

Finally Julia turns over the wheel of fortune. How unusual to get two major arcana cards in a five-card array, and such a fortuitous final card! So her reward - should she choose to pursue this course - will be in the form of success for their endeavour and a fresh start. Interesting. Perhaps the options and ambitions indicated by the two of wands will result in her taking on entirely new responsibilities. It could mean that she will be in the U.S. for a longer time than she’d expected, but in very different circumstances. Looking at the spread as a whole Julia is glad that she’s taken the initiative so often lately. If not for her, Pinker would still be making crank calls. If she hadn’t insisted on bringing in Gilly, they’d never know about Redwing or MI-5. The cards are telling her that greatness awaits, but she must take charge.

Satisfied, Julia reforms the deck, letting it rest before she asks her question. This is one of her habits, like setting the cards face down or cleansing them in the sun. She also tends to associate people with certain cards. She identifies herself as the queen of swords or the high priestess. Gilly is the page of cups, or the star in her brighter moments. Pinker is the hermit, Gideon the magician, and so on.

It’s time. Julia takes a four-part breath and shuffles. She focuses on her question: who is Ivan Ostrovsky? Another breath. She draws a card.

Two fall to the table. Dammit. Julia picks up the pair to start over when the images hit her like a splash of cold water. King of wands. Page of wands. Father and son. Confidence, action, energy, freedom. Nothing could be more clear. This is important, very important, but how? Clearly the cards sticking was no accident.

What had Gilly said about Ostrovsky? No, it was Atcheson. He’d said the heir of Redwing was a baby, but you’d be mad to trust Atcheson. Julia considers calling Gilly, but it’s late and Gilly is sadly obtuse on any remotely esoteric topic. Julia had done her best to explain ley lines to the girl and she had missed the point entirely and made a rather tasteless joke about connecting all the Marks and Spencer locations on the map. What can one expect from a girl who turned her back on astrology because she thinks crabs are too ugly for jewelry? No, there’s no point trying to drag Gilly out of the material plane, but in some way her literal mind is an asset. She can poke around libraries and archives and find out more about Ostrovsky and his son. Every instinct is telling Julia that they have a role to play in her rise, but as enemies or allies? She sends Gilly off to gather information while she concentrates on developing her power and insight. Everyone has their role to play in the Great Work.

***

There is no amount of cosseting that will make three weeks of hotels and restaurants tolerable to Ronald Atcheson. Two he can tolerate with only a little grumbling, but around day twenty he starts snarling and slapping people with his newspaper. On Madison’s instructions, the chef had made a simple, digestible dinner of poached fish and vegetables with items bought in London that morning, all fresh and simple, with a few pieces of Scottish shortbread for dessert. Madison has nearly the same thing, with the addition of coffee and a chocolate tart. It’s excellent, of course. The tart would be poison to Mr. Atcheson, but Madison has always been very courteous to Chef John, and this is his way of returning the favour. All the people who work in close quarters to Mr. Atcheson cooperate with each other, sharing information out of a common interest in avoiding the old man’s wrath. In that spirit, Madison returns his own tray to the galley to save work for the steward who tells him that the dinner went over well and that he’s just getting Mr. Atcheson’s brandy, unless Mr. Madison wants to would like to do the honours?

Mr. Madison would. He thanks Franklin and walks the tray to the master suite, careful to avoid spilling any in the rumbles of minor turbulence. He finds his employer in the sitting area, already in his pyjamas and robe, an old western playing on the television.

“If you have anything important you can save it for the morning. I already took my sleeping pill.”

“No, sir. I’ll probably take one myself after I finish my notes. I just wanted to see if you needed anything.”

“I need to get home.”

“Not until lunch time tomorrow, I’m afraid, but you’ll have peace and quiet unless you agree to host Mr. Olesk. ”

Olesk is one of the many politicians Atcheson has met with on this trip. He’s a vulgar, ugly, man with a penchant for animal hide clothing, but his worst sin in Atcheon’s eyes is that he’s all ambition and no plan, a common thug spouting patriotic clichés. If capitalism, Christianity, and traditional values are to prevail throughout the former Soviet Union, they will need better agents than a sewer rat like Olesk.

“Ugh. That asshole. He won’t set foot on my property. But keep him hungry.”

“Of course. And I’m so sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to bring up business.”

“Ah, s’okay. Sit down.”

Madison sits and waits for him to continue. Atcheson is clearly in a better mood if he wants to chat.

“What do you think of those Golden Mu people? For real.”

Madison considers. Mr. Atcheson seems to be taking this side venture more to heart than usual. Of course, unlike the eugenicists and health cranks Atcheson has entertained in the past, The Golden Mu has produced concrete results in advance.

“Pinker is a genius. If he can be kept in line he’ll make you money. This may mean psychiatric supervision.”

“Uh-huh. And?”

“Fox-Devereux is a con artist. I’m not sure about the women.”

Atcheson snorts. “No shit he’s a con artist. Question is, is he any good at it?”

“Ah, I see. Yes, actually. He’s far too cocky but he has some talent to back it up. I think he has potential to make his little order into something much bigger, especially if the Grenfell woman or someone like her keeps him on track. He’s managed to develop a cult following with minimal money and effort. I can see him doing well on radio or even television.”

Atcheson nods. “That’s right. And his brand of bullshit might sell better outside England. If Olesk had some of that quality he might be worth backing. You remember Ostrovsky?”

Madison flips through his mental file folder. Where is Atcheson going with this?

“Ah, I believe I do. 21 Club, about six years ago? Senator Laughlin introduced him, didn’t he?” Madison remembers the meeting perfectly well. Ostrovsky had struck him as an adventurer, a pirate, vital, with a glint in his eye, up to no good. He’d been surprised to find that Ostrovsky was slightly older than Mr. Atcheson and not ten years younger as he appeared. He’s been even more surprised when the man had winked at him; Madison is almost certain he saw that.

“Foreigner. Comes from nowhere, no family, no backing, and starts snatching crumbs from my table.”

“Very small crumbs.”

“Hmph. Flies still need swatting. He was an arrogant prick. Had a kid at, what? Fifty-five? Sixty? Fishy business.”

“One child. Too young to learn the business. No grandchildren. No dynasty.”

This is thin ice for Madison. Ronald Jr. is bright enough, and remarkably sensible for someone born into fourth-generation wealth. He is focussed on Parthenon’s success and reputation. He maintains a professional interest in politics but has no vision. He married a nice woman from an old family and has two children who promise to be even less interesting than their parents. Twins Alan and Andrew confine their political activity to crass tit-for-tat deals. Alan has four children by three wives and Andrew hasn’t found the right women yet, or so he says.

“You don’t see any of mine meeting with the Olesks and the Shevenkos and the Pamuks of the world.”

“Not yet,” Madison answers as soothingly as he can. “There is still time for them to think of serious matters beyond the narrow scope of the business. Mr. Ronald is very alive to his responsibilities.

“Ron’s a good kid” Atcheson’s eldest son is nearly forty-two.

“And a practical man. If he were to see revolutionary new technology in action, he would put resources behind it.”

“To turn a profit.” Atcheson broods for a moment and changes tack yet again. “Redwing has CIA backing. I’d stake my life on it.”

Madison has heard this before. Mr Atcheson inherited the company his grandfather founded and grew it considerably through his own intelligence and a massive cash infusion from his late wife. He habitually attributes his own success to personal brilliance and industry, and everyone else’s to unfair advantages. In this case he might have a point. Madison has to admit that Ostrovsky did seem to pop up out of nowhere like a mushroom.

“You think Redwing might want to poach Pinker? Or perhaps they have a Pinker of their own?”

“Maybe. Find out. If they are, we’ll put a stop to it. I don’t give a good god damn how.”

“Absolutely, sir. And if you’re right and Redwing has the clandestine support of certain official agencies… well, we are not without friends ourselves.”

Mr. Atcheson only grunts. The sleeping pill is starting to take effect and his good mood has evaporated. Madison doesn’t want to leave him like that.

“Oh, sir, before I go. There was one thing about Fox-Devereux I wanted to tell you.”

“Yeah?”

“Yesterday when we finalized the contract I mentioned that we’d be leaving on your plane and - you won’t believe this - he suggested that he accompany us. Spend some time one-on-one with you.”

Atcheson laughs. It’s a horrible, wheezing sound but Madison welcomes it.
“And you said?”

“Oh, I told him to go fuck himself.”

“Just like that?”

“Well, not quite in those words, but he understood my meaning perfectly.”

Mr. Atcheson is tickled with this little story and dismisses Madison with something close to warmth. He even suggests that Madison gets himself a brandy before turning in. Not having his own bedroom on the plane, Madison pours himself a generous shot, hoping to ease his night and sleep until they get home.

***

“Wow, Erik. I don’t know what to say. That is really messed up.”

“Isn’t it? Marcus thought so too, but I thought I’d run it by you, see what you think.”

“What do I think? I think you managed to find a girlfriend whose personal life is nearly as weird as your own.”

“Very cute.”

“No, I’m impressed. You have quite the instinct.”

Erik explains in detail why Andre is useless as a sounding board until his guardian has milked as much amusement as he can out of the situation. Besides, when Erik is wound up he tends to let the truth slip without meaning to, and sure enough, he tells on himself.

“So what I’m getting out of your rant here is that your very nice girlfriend has trusted you with some sensitive information and you have responded appropriately.”

“What? That is not what I said.”

“Sure it wasn’t. And now you have yet another person connected with you who trusts you to do the right thing, this time a young girl with very little protection.”

Erik is silent for a moment. “I suppose. It’s more of the same but… more. All right, genius, what do I do?”

“You seem to be doing fine. There’s no magic formula for dealing with complicated, painful situations. Avoid causing harm. Be patient. Live in the moment. If it makes you feel any better, this is hard for everybody.”

“Great.”

“Going to Marcus was a good move.”

“Sure. Whatever. This is exhausting.”

Andre doesn’t like the sound of that one bit. “You don’t have to solve anyone else’s problem, you know. Noelle’s family life isn’t your mission.”

“That’s what I want, though. One mission that I can pursue single-mindedly and win. All this has too many shades and tones.”

“Your mission right now is to live well and acquire tools to continue to live well. Look after yourself. Are you getting enough sleep?”

“Oh, sure. I’m fine. It’s funny how easily you get spoiled. After all I’ve done in my life you’d think this would be a walk, but between school, and sports, and Noelle, and rehearsals I’m stretched a little thin.”

“How are the rehearsals going?”

“As well as can be expected. I’m off-book. The vocals are a challenge. I’m pretty much the only person with no experience. Ms. Miller keeps giving me new bits of business and it changes all the time. Yesterday I had to practice walking across the tops of pews for thirty minutes before rehearsals started for real. Nearly fell on my ass. Serve her right if I break my neck on opening night.”

“You always land on your feet. Hey, are you due for a growth spurt around now?”

Erik thinks for a moment. “Maybe? I just had one last summer. That would explain a lot, though.”

“See what I mean? You can’t take on other people’s burdens when you have all this growing to do. Get to it.”

“Sure, Uncle Andre.” Andre can almost hear the eye roll.

“Here’s some more words of wisdom for you. Write this down. Sometimes love isn’t a feeling, it’s a series of actions. And I’m not just talking about romantic love either.”
“Thank you, Andre. That is absolutely the corniest, least relevant thing I have heard in my long and eventful life. Congratulations.”

“I’ll have it made into a poster and send it to you.”

“Mmm. The things I could have put on a poster for you.”

“Sure kiddo. Go have fun. I’ll talk to you soon.”

Andre hangs up, confident that he has helped Erik, no matter how unappreciative his ward seems. He’s also glad that Erik didn’t ask about Malcolm Browning or The Golden Mu because something weird is happening on that front, and neither Browning nor his CIA contacts have a handle on it yet. Erik has enough going on without worrying about a cult of wing nuts, especially when the grownups are looking out for him.

Chapter Text

Andre Torres can be a real pain in the ass with his teasing and nonsense, but you can’t say the man doesn’t hit on a fact now and then. With that in mind, Erik checks the fit of his clothes and finds that his jeans are a bit short to have the sloppy break one seeks in a high school setting, and his button-downs ride up slightly at the cuffs. Inexcusable not to notice until now, but he has been busy. On the first Saturday in February he has no rehearsals or appointments until the evening, so after polishing off his homework he borrows Maddy’s seam ripper and lets down his jeans an inch. He tosses the shirts that don’t fit into the family donation bag and moves the “to grow in” shirts to the front of his closet. Marcus sees what he’s doing and offers to measure him properly: he comes to 70.5 inches, the same as Marcus and just a hair below his full adult height from before.

Marcus grasps Erik by the shoulders and frowns appraisingly. The kid is still thin but he’s solid as hell. When did that happen? “You look like you’ve put on some muscle. Go step on the scale in our bathroom.”

Erik reports that he weighs 150, which probably means more like 145 if you subtract all the clothes and the egg sandwich he put away this morning.
“And how about you, Marcus?”

“Less than I was, never you mind how much.” They still work out regularly and while Marcus has lost only fifteen pounds total, the distribution has shifted in his favour. Besides, his size isn’t the issue here. “You’re going to shoot up again soon, aren’t you? You’ll crack six feet before next school year if this keeps up.”

“That’s the plan.”

“Sixteen is usually the cut-off, although Michael was in grad school when he finally settled. Speaking of, have you thought about your birthday party? Maddy mentioned it again today.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Marcus. Noelle won’t be here, and I wouldn’t want a big deal like J.T. or Dev. It could just be family.”

“Sure, if you like. You only turn sixteen once though. Driving age.”

“It’s not like we can do a pool party or a bonfire.” Dev Banerjee’s birthday had involved a bonfire and an outdoor banquet on a crisp Autumn evening. Erik would like something similar, but planning anything outside late March is asking for trouble.

“Maddy had an idea; what do you think of a murder mystery party?”

Erik has heard of such things. In the early 90s they were trendy as fundraisers; people liked the chance to mill around fancy hotels and country clubs in period costume and play detective. Ivan was invited to a few but always sent a cheque in lieu.

“I don’t know. Would they have to dress up? And you know my friends; what are the odds that they’d actually solve the mystery?”

Marcus laughs, but doesn’t contradict Erik’s assessment of his buddies. “What if Maddy wrote it? She says she came up with a pretty good outline when she was looking at seed catalogues.”

“She actually said ‘pretty good?’ That means amazing”

“You know it. And I think she’d like to do something a little bit out there, get the creative juices flowing. So what do we tell her?”

“How can I turn that down? But it’s crazy that you’re doing all this. I’m already going to New York for spring break.”

Marcus turns very serious. “Oh, right. Well, you wouldn’t want to have too much fun now, would you? What happens if you go over your recommended daily allowance of things that are cool?”
“I could turn into a pumpkin?”

“Or you might have too many stories to tell. We can’t have that. Maybe we should reinforce the retaining wall in the garden for your birthday.”

“Sure. Unless you have any tiles that need re-grouting.”

“That works for me. We’ll get a dozen putty knives and have ourselves a par-tay.”

“The guests could take them home, as favours.”

“The social event of the season. Now, come and tell Maddy. I want to get you on record before you change your mind.”

***

The flight from Heathrow to New York City turns out to be the highlight of the relocation. As promised, Julia, Gideon, and Pinker receive first-class tickets to JFK. They enjoy the service, the space, the food, and the drink, especially the latter, perhaps a little too much. When they get to New York they’re tired and a little disoriented, and the line at customs is long and slow, although when they finally get to the counter they’re whisked right through. Julia is hugely relieved when two men from Parthenon meet them in the arrivals lounge and take charge of the luggage. That changes when the older of the pair - who refuses to give his name - tells them they’d better hurry if they want to catch their “puddle jumper.” Don’t worry, lady, he tells her. The bags will be waiting when you get to the house.
Pinker starts hyperventilating at the sight of his trunks full of equipment being carted away, but they don’t have time to argue because their next terminal is, in Julia’s estimation, two kilometres away. The next flight is anything but first class and after a bumpy, crowded ninety minutes in a small plane with one bathroom, they arrive at Rochester International. Parthenon has a major presence in Arlington, Berkeley, Houston, and Charlotte, and its subsidiaries are spread over twelve states, but the head office is still in Rochester where the Atcheson family settled in the 1850s. Ron Jr. spends most of his working time in this office and could have met the Golden Mu contingent if he’d wanted to, or knew they existed. Instead, they get Benny Zabala, a twenty-eight-year-old security guard with a dented, dirty gold minivan. Zabala seems competent enough, at least, but he’s got an off-hand manner that infuriates Gideon. Julia sees his anger building and squeezes his hand. “Long view, Gideon. Long view.”

After an hour they arrive at the farmhouse and now it’s Julia’s turn to be furious. It is a house. It is on a farm, or what was a farm until Parthenon acquired the land.The property has been neglected for two years and will continue to be neglected until it’s rezoned or otherwise becomes worth selling. The house is the ugliest building Julia has ever seen, a big, beige, block on a flat, unfenced lot of mud, gravel and weeds. It looks like something built out of plastic blocks by an unimaginative child.

“Nice, huh?” asks the oblivious Zabala. “It was a show model. All they had to do was truck it in and reassemble it right here.”

He opens the door with far more drama than the moment merits. Their bags are waiting for them in the hallway, thank goodness. That’s exactly one good thing since they left the airport. The inside is beige as well; lighter on the ceiling, darker on the trim. Julia sniffs at the strong, sweet chemical smell.

“They got a carpet cleaner in here and gave it a good going over. Look at this.” Zabala brushes his hand on the textured wall. “Plastic coated. You could spill a whole plate of spaghetti on this and it would wipe right off.”

Zabala grabs Julia’s bags and carries them to the master bedroom. “We figured the lady should take the bedroom with the big bathroom, right? My sisters would kill for one this big.” The bedroom and bathroom are certainly large, so much so that the double bed and three-drawer bureau look lonely and sad. The pink floral bedspread matches the curtains. The towels in the bathroom are a similar shade of pink, just off enough to be noticeable. Zabala dumps her bags and continues the tour.

The living room is completely bare, something they’re working on, he assures them. There’s a light oak table and four matching chairs in the dining room, where sliding doors treat them to a view of an enormous motorhome. That’s where he’ll be saying, Zabala informs them. It’s hooked up to the main house for water and power, so they don’t have to worry about him. If he needs company he’ll let them know.

Two of the remaining four bedrooms are also minimally furnished, one in blue, one in green. That leaves two empty bedrooms and a family room free for use as office space or whatever, Zabala explains. They can make a list of what more they need and it will be obtained, within reason, of course. What about housekeeping? A Mrs. Emily Barton will come by every day with something they can heat up for dinner, and they can give her a shopping list for supplies once a week. On Thursdays she’ll bring a cleaning crew for a few hours, but don’t leave too much mess as she reserves the right to walk out at any time.

“You can’t blame her for not wanting to look after total pigs when she has four boys at home, amirite?” Zabala jokes, not realizing that Julia and Gideon are hating him more with every word that comes out of his mouth. Pinker takes no offence, as he’s been called far worse and is pleased that his own bedroom and bathroom match Gideon’s. As always, his main concern is electrical power and his equipment.

“You won’t be able to do any of your science stuff in the house, but, oh, man; actually, just put on your boots and come look. It’s amazing.”

Julia changes into jeans and adds a sweater layer under her jacket. Gideon says he wants to unpack and rest. He’ll explore later, he says, clearly wanting some time on his own to pout. Julia has to trot to catch up to Pinker and Zabala who are way ahead of her on a packed down dirt path. It ends at an unpainted wooden barn with a red brick chimney. Zabala hands Pinker the key. “You’re going to shit yourself when you see this!” he says with his characteristic charm and enthusiasm.

The inside is certainly not what Julia expected. The floor is concrete and looks new. There’s a steel platform in the centre surrounded by thick rubber matting. The walls have been redone with new insulation, drywall, and the shiny teflon coating Pinker requested. The chimney leads down to what looks like a huge pizza oven with wood arranged and ready to light. There are two sturdy lab tables set up with electrical outlets every six feet, More rubber matting lines the work area and there are four padded wooden stools distributed so Pinker can sit without dragging a chair around. Zabala pulls a clipboard from a peg and hands it to Pinker. “Mr Madison wants you to do an inventory as soon as you can; make sure you have everything and add whatever you need. There’s a load of firewood in the woodshed, right behind the forge. You can get a heater if you want, but Madison figured you’d want to save all the power for your work. It’s all in there. I don’t understand what he’s saying about electrical supply, but you’ll get it.”

Pinker scans the pages and appears satisfied, even happy in his own way. He’s finally got the power he craves and can get to work in earnest. Julia watches him fondle the boxes and try the utility sink as Zabala lights the fire and her anger almost overtakes her. It’s obvious that Parthenon has put ten times the effort into setting up this workshop than they have with the house where they will actually have to live. She turns on her heel and leaves, only to have Zabala catch up and start chatting as if nothing were wrong.

“I knew your buddy there would love the lab. Can you imagine how cool it was when all the blacksmith stuff was still there? ”

“I’m sure it was a showplace. What’s that over there?” Julia points to a small white building between the house and the lab but set closer to a grove of bare trees planted in rows.”

“That was the first house. They demolished the second and should have torn this one down as well. A lot of those old planks are rotten. You could break your leg and get eaten by rats.”

“How unfortunate.” With its pointed roof and covered porch the tiny house is the only charming thing on the property. She’d rather stay somewhere like that than in a plastic box with Gideon and Pinker.

“Yeah. It’s a shame. I bet it was real nice in the spring with all those apple trees.”

Apple trees. It occurs to Julia that she didn’t see any fruit in the kitchen when Zabala did his tour. Without much hope she asks him about the catering and is told there’s no need to worry.

“Mrs. Barton made sure there was plenty in the freezer so you can have your choice; spaghetti sauce, chilli, hamburger stew…”

“Is Mrs. Barton aware that I’m a strict vegetarian?” Julia asks, knowing the answer even before Zabala’s face falls. She stomps back to the house, ignoring Zabala’s offer to make things right, somehow. She vows to give Madison a blistering as soon as she can. If there aren’t at least some crackers in that hideous kitchen she will burn the whole place to the ground.

***

It’s almost eight p.m. on February 8 when Mortimer realizes that It’s started to snow and he has been too engrossed in conversation with his new friends to be aware of the time. He’d invited Blake to join them, but Francis had pleaded work, and told Mortimer not to worry or wait up. Sure enough, Phillip returns to a dark house and sets about heating up soup and putting a fire on in the hope that they can enjoy it together. When Blake hasn’t returned home by ten, he tidies up and goes to bed alone. He doesn’t register the time when Francis finally joins him.

The next morning he wakes up alone to a note on his bedside table. Something has come up. Blake will either be home early or have another late night, talk later. He’s signed with a heart, a playful touch he wouldn’t have dared in the old days. Since it’s Friday, Mortimer leaves work right on time and to his delight, Blake is already home. He’s in a mood, though, so Phillip - good partner that he is - lets Blake rant about work as they prepare dinner together. It’s nice to enjoy this intimacy together, even though Francis is clearly having a hard time. He can’t be specific, but he details the deficiencies of imagination in certain unnamed higher-ups, and the potential consequences of leaving leads unexplored. That’s why he’s home so early, actually. It wasn’t a choice. He had become a little emphatic about continuing a line of investigation right away and was dismissed - ever so politely - to get some rest.

“I tell you, Phillip, no good will come of it. I’ve rarely seen such pigheaded obstruction, and I can only warn them indirectly through Honeychurch.”
“I’m so sorry, my dear. It is very frustrating. I encounter the same thing, to a lesser extent, I’m sure. Technically I’m senior to everyone there, but I must act the part of the newcomer. It was good to talk freely last night, even if we were from all different fields.”

Blake looks blank for a moment, then sighs. “That’s right. I completely forgot that you attended the Imperial College lecture last night, and here I set it up for you. Did you at least enjoy it?”

“Yes, very much. And I can tell you that the world has not heard the last of Michael Wattell.”

“Another mad scientist in the making?”

“More like a slightly daft scientist. But he’s brilliant, Francis, really something special. I do hope we’ll be able to meet in Canada this autumn.”

“Canada? What have you done, Phillip?”

“Oh, it probably won’t happen. The University of British Columbia is forming something called the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences and Michael might be visiting them in September with one of his professors. I was thinking of heading that way to explore tidal energy, so we got talking. It would be a nice holiday. Wonderful hiking in that part of the world, I understand.”

“Phillip…”

“It’s just a thought Francis. Never fear, I didn’t neglect our business.”

They relax in the sitting room while waiting for their roast and veg to finish cooking, and Phillip tells the whole story. On Thursday afternoon he’d attended the lecture with Professor Donaldson, and found it surprisingly engaging. Wattell has a knack for making his esoteric line of study approachable and even amusing; besides, the point of his work is to create evacuation plans that increase survival rates after disasters for individual buildings, communities, and even regions, and everyone can see the value in that.

After the lecture, Michael had seemed surprised that so many people wanted to shake his hand and talk to him, but eventually he’d made his way through the throng and met up with Donaldson. She’d suggested that they all head for the pub, but Michael had an errand to run, so he’d circled the pub address on his pocket map and promised to meet them later. Donaldson had gathered up a few colleagues and they all had a pint or two until Wattell showed up.

“He had a shopping bag from the Science Museum. He’d bought a space rock necklace for his younger sister and a sweatshirt for his little brother, who’s just getting interested in astronomy.”

“Is he now?”

“Yes, and he turns sixteen next month, so Michael wanted to get him something special.”

“He calls Ostrovsky his brother?”

“He does. Perhaps that’s just for convenience, but he seemed genuinely affectionate. And your boy called himself Erik, incidentally.”

 

Michael hadn’t discussed his family much beyond that, Phillip reports. He’d been very interested in alternative energy, and had explained one aspect of how math applies to the study of wave action using a pile of cocktail napkins and a straw. After a pint he’d become quite giggly and asked some questions of the others that seemed bizarre initially. Then he’d continue his train of thought and demonstrate again and again that his mind made connections between disciplines in a way that seemed effortless, second nature even.

“So what’s your assessment? Any potential for danger there?”

“No, Francis, I can’t see it. He loves math the way a bird loves air currents. He is perfectly aware that he has a gift and all he wants to do with it is help people. A truly gentle soul, I think. I’d be more worried about him being preyed upon than him doing any harm.”

“If that’s the case, I would feel better if his ‘younger brother’ weren’t a predator.”

“Possible predator. Possibly the son of one. Possibly just a boy with an unusual history.”

This leads them to their old argument about the impact of environment and experience on character. They’re been discussing this for years, and while their positions have grown closer, Blake is still inclined to believe that criminality is fixed, whereas Mortimer is, as always, the optimist who pushes for a reform approach. This, in turn leads to a discussion of Mortimer’s new interests and whether or not he will go as far as acquiring another degree or two. He wouldn’t even be that old for a grad student these days.

The phone rings halfway through dinner and with great reluctance, Blake rises from the table to answer it. He’d let it go to voicemail, but with work being the way it is…

Phillip doesn’t have to overhear much to realize it’s going to be another long night. When he hangs up, Blake is pale and furious, but he calmly and methodically prepares to go out yet again. There’s been a bombing, a bad one, at the Docklands, just as he’d predicted; dozens of casualties, perhaps hundreds. Mortimer fills a thermos with coffee and sticks a health bar in the pocket of Blake’s winter coat. They embrace for a long moment at the door, knowing they won’t see each other again tonight.

***

A man of great wealth can live anywhere he wants, but at his time of life, Ronald Atcheson prefers the simplicity of his cottage at Stowe, Vermont. With only eight bedrooms, (not counting servants’ quarters) it’s small enough to discourage family from visiting for too long at a time, yet large enough for him to keep out of the way of staff when he chooses. He used to ski and socialize more, but now he keeps mostly to himself or putts around with his Arctic Cat on firm trails cut by the groundskeeper. The boys come up to spend a night here and there, but their families prefer to winter in St. Barth or Palm Springs.

Madison prefers the cottage as well. He has his own comfortable suite and is on good terms with the full-time staff members. He and Stevens, the house manager, are particularly tight. Mrs. Stevens is genial enough, but always too busy to chat and she tends to view everyone who isn’t Mr. Atcheson or her husband as in the way. The groundskeeper and driver are younger men who keep to themselves, but they’re always respectful, knowing that Madison sits at the king’s side. Madison has his own assistant back in Rochester, and they stay in touch by phone and fax, which is peaceful in its own way. He’s been particularly thankful for this distance since Fox-Devereux and the Grenfell woman became part of his life.

Poor Rory back at the office has had to absorb a lot of abuse, especially from Julia. Madison himself stopped talking to either her or Fox-Devereux two days after they landed, passing them off to his assistant without a qualm. She has instructions to provide the second cheapest version of whatever is reasonable and ignore grandiose demands, no matter what it says in the contract; after all, there are no specific timelines and Mr. Atcheson has been very generous without seeing actual progress, has he not?

It’s the subject of actual progress that has Madison concerned at the moment. He doesn’t speak to Julia or Gideon, but that doesn’t mean he’s out of contact entirely. As instructed, Benjamin Zabala has been sticking close to Pinker, befriending the strange little man and picking up whatever information he can. Zabala claims that Pinker expects to have a prototype (whatever that means) ready in six weeks, which strikes Madison as extremely unlikely and the kind of promise a grifter would make. He was so troubled that he actually phoned Zabala on his mobile and asked to speak to Pinker directly. After reviewing his notes Madison realizes that he will have to trouble Mr. Atcheson with this new information. Fortunately, his employer has been in a better mood since their return home, or at last it takes more to send him into a rage.

“Six week. He actually said that.”

“Yes, and having read the, er, history of the project, that seemed a little optimistic.”

Atcheson reflects a moment. He has been working on the assumption that Gideon and Julia can be trusted as far as they can be thrown, but Pinker doesn’t seem to have that kind of intelligence.

“Did you get an explanation for how he could do in a few months what the originator of this technology took years to accomplish?”

Madison consults his notes. “A lot of it has to do with replicating the technology rather than originating it. Pinker speaks of it like an oil well; the resource is there, he has a blueprint, he just has to tap into it.”

“Hmph. Confident, or nuts?”

“What he says makes sense, but I’m not sure. He says it’s like rebuilding an engine - just follow the plan. Technological improvements are also a factor. Many of the components he’s using weren’t available in the forties; apparently a laser guidance system will save a lot of time, as will digital timers. Pinker did say something that struck me as amusing.”

Atcheson waves his hand impatiently.

“He said that the original lab was a visual masterpiece, worthy of an artist, or as he said, ‘something out of an old science fiction film.’ His will be the quick and dirty version. He claims that simply having the volunteer lie down beside the emitter/receptor apparatus will save a tremendous amount of time and money.”

“Yeah, I can see that. Like that ugly stun gun. It looked like something a kid would make.”

“But it worked. Dress it up in a sleek, chrome housing…”

“Weapon of the future. Look, call his bluff. Tell him I’ll be visiting in person at the end of March. And don’t tell the other two a damned thing.”

“Of course, sir. You think he will be successful, then?”

“Probably not, but this will light a fire under his ass. Oh, and see if Zabala can steal that gun back.”

Madison pauses in surprise.“I thought our people had thoroughly examined it during transit.”

“They did. Wasn’t enough. That’s no reason for it not to be mine, though. Get on it.”

“Will do, sir.”

***

“Tanks, Wick! Tanks, Wick!”

Andre swears Miranda needed very little prompting to thank Erik for her birthday present, even if she did drop the phone and run off instantly.

“She really does like the owl. It’s nearly as big as she is and she drags it all over the house. It’s name is Owie. I thought you would appreciate that.”

“It was Noelle’s idea. I told her about Vermont and the snow sculptures.”

“In any case, it was very thoughtful. Mari thinks so too.”

“Mmm. Are you having a party for her birthday?”

“Of course! You can’t have too many pictures of a two-year-old with her face in a chocolate cake.”

“I guess this is an American thing. Or maybe a modern thing. We didn’t make so much of birthdays back in the day. Not even regular people, I mean. Not that I heard, at least.”

“Like you know about regular people. Hey, I hate to bring this up, but have you talked to Malcolm lately?”

“About those crazy people bugging out?”

“Ah, yes. You’re not to worry, though. He’s on it. Clark has been informed as well.”

“I know, Andre. I’m on alert. Marcus and Maddy are on alert. Everyone is on alert. But there are a hundred possible reasons for this. They could be fleeing creditors. Or cops. Maybe they’re in custody.” Of course, if that were true, Malcolm would already know. Erik wonders if he’s falling into the error of wishful thinking.

“That’s the spirit. And, as you said, Malcolm is on it.”

“Right.”

“And now I’m going to tell you to be careful and you’re going to roll your eyes.”

“Consider it done.”

“Excellent. Everything else going okay? Grades? The play?”

“Grades are fine. Looking forward to getting midterms over with. The play is a huge mess. If nothing else, we’ll get some unintentional laughs.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. Oh, and Mari when I buy the video. They’re charging $50 a copy.”

“It’s a racket. Silver Birch parents will buy anything related to their little angels”

“Funny you should say that. Marcus and Maddy are getting a copy, and so is dear Ms. Huttering.”

“Doris? Wonderful. I will be hearing about this for years to come.”

“It’s a resumé brightener, a fun story to tell when you’re a grown-up. And then when that’s over you’ll have exams and spring break and you’ll be in our guest room before you know it. Oh, except you’ll be on the couch. Noelle is still coming, right?”

“Sure.”

“You hesitated. Everything okay?”

“We had a fight, we made up. Everything is fine, except apparently I’m destined to make a whole new set of mistakes this time around. It was over nothing.”

“You sound incredibly convincing.”

Erik makes sure his door is closed, just in case Marcus or Maddy come up, and settles in. As he explains to Andre, he has been working his tail off to make the play a success, and to be fair, most of the other cast members are, too. There is one kid, Ricky Staggs, their Big Jule, who’s been snippy and rude, but nothing Erik can’t handle. Except a few rehearsals ago they were all seated on bleachers waiting for Ms. Miller and Ricky had said something about his “homely little frog girlfriend” and Erik had almost been at his throat before they were separated by their cast mates. He’d got himself under control immediately - no way he’s risking a suspension with opening night weeks away - but his hands had itched to get around Staggs’ throat.

It was over in a moment, just a minor incident. He had no intention of mentioning it to Noelle, but she had found out anyway and had been furious. How dare he risk the play? How dare he presume to take drastic action without asking her? He’s said something about her maybe not being able to fight - meaning it as a kind of compliment on her good nature - and that had made her even angrier. He should have known. He’s always preferred women who fight their own battles - often literally - so why wouldn’t Noelle have that in common with the criminals, spies, and adventuresses of his past? Their little disagreement had threatened to get loud, so he’d let her go home on her own, or rather with him hanging back half a block as they go almost the same route. He’d been furious until they were within a block of his house when it had struck him as funny. “I’ll call you to apologize later,” he’d yelled after her, and she had burst out laughing. Everything was fine between them, maybe even better. What Erik couldn’t shake was the memory of the murderous joy he’d felt at the prospect of pounding Staggs into the ground. He would have cheerfully killed a seventeen-year-old idiot in that moment, and it would have ruined his wonderful new life. As it is, Staggs had nearly wet his pants, being more of a talker than a fighter. He doesn’t tell Andre this part. He’ll save it for the professionally secretive Dr. Brock, and if Brock doesn’t help he’ll talk to Maddy, who has her own dark side.

As it is, Andre isn’t thrilled, but lawyer that he is, he points out there is a defence. He would probably lunge at anyone who insulted Maribella, and she would also be furious. In any case, it didn’t come to anything, so Erik was lucky this time.

“I’m glad to see Noelle stand up to you. From what you’d told me I was afraid she was too nice to put up a fight.”

“That’s what I said, and she nearly hit me. You’ll see for yourself pretty soon. Noelle is tougher than I’d thought, especially considering her upbringing. She’s as sheltered as any of the Silver Birch kids, at least until her dad had his religious crisis, but she’s risen to the occasion. And Maribella was right about the dating; Noelle values things we do together over gifts and dinners, so that tells you something about her.”

“So that’s what you and Mari talked about. What is there for young people to do in Buffalo anyway? I guess you have the skating for a while yet, and movies.”

“Noelle took me to a poetry reading at a coffeehouse. It was incredibly pretentious.”

“I hope you managed to keep a straight face.”

“We did our best. Let’s see… we went stargazing in the middle of the night last week when it was cold and clear. That was my idea - don’t tell Maddy. I’m trying to scalp tickets to a concert this weekend, but mostly we do things that are free or very inexpensive, like the college art show or a basketball game after school. She’s interested in robotics, so I’d like to get her to Syracuse to visit the lab, but that might have to wait until she visits again, which I think she will.”

“That sounds very reasonable. I’m proud of you.”

“Listen to yourself. You’d think you really were my uncle.”

“Want to know something weird? Sometimes I forget I’m not.”

Erik laughs at that, but the idea sticks with him when Andre hangs up. He really does think of Andre as an advisor and friend, which is what uncles do, right? Andre no longer seems so much younger than himself. And that episode with Staggs; he hadn’t experienced that kind of fire-in-the-belly rage in decades. It had felt good, maybe too good. He doesn’t want to get used to that feeling any more than he wants to take up smoking again. Was it just a lapse, or is living in a young body affecting his mind? Or is it something else entirely? He shakes off the introspection and gets back to trying to find tickets for Sunday, vowing not to lose his temper if he fails.

***

When Gideon and Julia pore through their contract with Atcheson they realize that nowhere does it specify that they will be quartered in Rochester, or anywhere else for that matter. Madison’s excuse for exiling them to a mud field eight miles from Lyons is security. Pinker’s lab requires a great deal of power and regular deliveries of a kind to attract notice. Surely they recognize the need for secrecy? Have they not reviewed the confidentiality clauses and their penalties? Arguing does no good, although they do get their way on more superficial matters. Trucks start showing up with basic furniture for all the empty rooms. They each get a television - Pinker doesn’t want one - and a third, larger one for the sitting room. Mrs. Barton begrudgingly adds a few vegetarian dishes to her repertoire and learns where the shops keep their tofu and sprouts. Their first stipends are deposited directly into new bank accounts, so Julia buys herself a rice cooker, forbidding her housemates from touching it, or any of her personal stash of groceries.

As promised, Madison has provided them with a car, a nearly pristine 1993 Honda Prelude, part of Parthenon’s fleet. Unfortunately, they’re supposed to share it, which means that Gideon has to sulk at home when Julia has it, and she seethes at home when he’s out and about. Zabala refuses to drive either of them anywhere except the airport should they choose to go home. He’s here to guard the lab equipment, the property, and Pinker, in that order, and that’s what he’s going to do. He suggests that if they’re bored, they take up gardening. Look at all this land, after all. Benny’s mother is an avid gardener and would be pleased to show them the ropes if they asked nicely.

Gideon insists on having the car Wednesdays and Sundays. There are nine churches in Lyons and another half dozen or so in the surrounding rural area. His plan is to investigate each, skim off as many seekers as he can, and restart the Order in a stealthy manner, and that means attending at least three services per week, plus whatever social events they hold. He had originally planned to put up flyers and call newspapers and radio stations, but Zabala had told him flatly that no publicity can mention anything to do with the experiments. Mr. Madison has been very clear on that and will come down like “the hammer of god” if word gets out. In fact, none of them are permitted to have guests on the premises (“it’s in the contract”) under any circumstances. With that in mind, Gideon opts to have the car on Mondays as well, just in case his conversation with a new friend goes very late, or needs to be continued at one of the highway lodges outside of Lyons.

Julia has no interest in Gideon’s intrigues, but she approves of his plan to start small. She remembers what he was like at Oxford, so handsome and charming; he’d cultivated an air of reserve and shyness that drew people to him because it was cultivated. He could play the lad or play the romantic, depending on his audience. She gathers his strategy is to once again present himself as bait and let them get close, like a sea anemone. Given that he has no temple and the hypno-disk is off limits, that seems wise.

Julia decides to take the car Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Lyons is a charming little village, but a tour of the old peppermint oil factory and the Erie Canal artifacts is the work of a day. The downtown core - two short streets of it - is quite pleasant but limited, as you’d expect in a community of 6,000 people. She likes a few of the local coffee shops well enough, and there’s a surprisingly high-end women’s clothing store downtown, but real shopping is at least an hour away.

That leaves Thursdays for Pinker, but he never leaves the worksite except for quick runs to the hardware store in Lyons. He doesn’t even spend much time in the big house, preferring to eat at his desk and spend his nights on a cot by the forge. Julia is pretty sure he’s using the little outhouse behind the decrepit old cottage, despite Zabala’s warnings about rotten wood and wildlife. She tries not to think about this.

Julia goes all the way to Brighton to get the rice cooker she wanted, but that’s fine. It’s worth all the driving just to get out of the house. She searches out vegetarian restaurants and health food stores and finds an occult book store in Brighton, and another in Syracuse. In the latter she finds Sacred Places, a self-published book - hefty pamphlet, really - on dowsing, geospiral energies, and places of power in upstate New York. It’s overpriced at $10, but she buys it happily and makes a project of mapping out the places mentioned in relation to Lyons.

Gilly sends her some interesting reading material as well. The business is fine, the house is fine, everything is fine and she’s been doing some research in her spare time. After Ivan Ostrovsky died, the new CEO and head of operations went on a spree of damage control interviews in an effort to reassure the public that Redwing was in good hands. From these Gilly has mined quite a bit of information about the heir, which she’s summarized with citations and copies of the original sources. He’s not a baby, contrary to what Atcheson had said, but a young man of high school age, between 14 and 18. The boy is also named Ivan, according to the will, and is not staying with relatives, since there aren’t any. Assiz Hassan stresses that he is being well cared for and educated in an undisclosed location upstate. Gilly has thoughtfully included a list of more than twenty private schools, having deduced that no young Ostrovsky would attend classes with the proletariat. She also suggests that the boy might be on the outskirts of New York City, where Redwing is centred, or perhaps in Syracuse, where they have a research facility.

Julia clears her desk and sets out her red pen and map, Gilly’s report, and her new copy of Sacred Places. One of the strongest ley lines runs from Boston, through Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo where it terminates on the shore of Lake Erie. Lyons is on the line, almost exactly midway between Syracuse and Rochester. Julia joins the dots and stares at the map. She feels a slight vibration in her fingertips, an itch in the back of her mind. This won’t do at all. As she has more and more lately, Julia retrieves her cards from the windowsill where she’d set them out for consecration. She smooths the map, holds the cards for a long moment, and proceeds to lay them out along the red line.

Chapter Text

When Erik first broached the idea to Maddy she’d laughed and said, “If you buy, I’ll fly.” Knowing he has the support of his foster mother prompts Erik to call and haggle and call again until he’s blown two months of his allowance on three tickets. Marcus thinks they’re crazy but he’s fine with them going as long as Maddy drives carefully and Erik doesn’t complain about being tired at school the next day. With that in mind, here they are - Maddy, Erik, and Noelle - on highway 403 to Toronto on a Sunday night to see Iron Maiden at the R.P.M. Warehouse. Noelle doesn’t even care for heavy metal, but she’s never attended a big rock show, and besides, she’s game for almost anything. Maddy is more of a bluegrass, prog rock kind of person, but this is an adventure, so why not? Besides, Erik doesn’t ask for much, not really. It’s crowded, they can hardly see the stage, and it starts late. None of that matters. By the time “Sign of the Cross” is blasting through the hall both ladies are jumping with their hands in the air. Erik actually prefers Fear Factory, the opener, but he has a great time anyway because it’s working out just as he’d planned. Maddy springs for three X-Factour tee shirts so they each have a souvenir, although Erik knows nothing short of a lobotomy could make him forget this night.

It’s 2 a.m. when they finally hit the road. Noelle stumbles on their way to the car so Erik suggests she spread out in the back and try to nap on the way home. He’ll ride shotgun and talk to Maddy. Noelle scoffs at the idea, but she nods off as soon as they’re on the highway. They drive in silence for a while enjoying the peace of a late drive on a fine, dry road. They have a stop at the border and Noelle doesn’t stir, so Erik decides that this is as good a time as any.

“So, I won’t ask you to promise not to get angry…”

Maddy groans, but in good humour. “I promise not to yell at you while I’m at the wheel. How about that?”

Erik tells her about the almost fight with the Staggs kid, even the embarrassing part about Nicole blowing up at him. None of that is really important, and he is working on the temper thing. He just thought she should know.

Maddy nods. “I bet it would have been fun to beat that punk into the floorboards.”

“It would have. I would have loved every second of it. That’s kind of the problem.”

“Right. What kind of monster would take pleasure in making the asshole who insulted his girlfriend blubber? I imagine you’d at least get a little blood on his clothes. You know, I once busted my cousin Nick’s nose so badly he developed a deviated septum. At least, he blames it on me, the idiot.”

“Did he deserve it?”

“He deserved a lot more than that. A lot of people do. You can’t ruin them all.” She sighs. “And yes, you shouldn’t want to.”

“When was the last time you hit someone?”

Maddy puts her hand to her mouth d. “Oh, lord, Erik, I was 20.”

“Really? What happened? Did someone attack you?”

“Someone attacked Marcus. Specifically, this stupid, stupid girl I worked with at the restaurant made a racist remark about my sweet, nerdy boyfriend, and I laid her out without even thinking about it. One punch to the throat, boom, flat on her ass.”

“Jesus. Did you get fired?”

“No, but only because she was stealing tips and the owner liked me. Marcus wasn’t impressed one bit.”

“I’m impressed.”

“You would be. That’s not an insult. It’s just an acknowledgment of something we have in common. We keep score, we hold grudges, and we settle our accounts. But, honey, you have to find a better way. I struggle with it, and always will. You’re going to have to struggle with it too if you don’t want to be a bastard that nobody likes.”

“But what better way? I talk to Dr. Brock, I follow her protocols, I keep busy. And 19 times out of 20 it works…”

“But there’s always the twentieth. And some people are almost literally asking for it. And for some of us, rage is very satisfying, at least in the moment. And it can cost us everything we love.”

“He was really going to break it off?” Erik has difficulty imagining Maddy or Marcus without the other.

“It was too close. He was scared. He knew better than I did what kind of crap our kids would face, and he didn’t want them seeing violence or… well, anything that could lead to trouble, honestly. The kind of thing I used to get detention for could get Michael or Sarah expelled, or worse. You know how the world works.”

“Yeah, I know. If I had thought for two seconds I wouldn’t have lunged at him. But I didn’t think.”

“I know that feeling. You don’t need to beat yourself up about this too much, at least not this one time. I don’t think you’re going to turn into another Harry Thaw or John du Pont, god forbid.”

Erik grimaces. Both of those men have only one murder to their debit and the insanity defence applies. He has plenty of reasons on his side, but no such excuse.

“Listen,” Maddy continues. “You’re still young, and you’re working on it. You just have to keep working on it, practice that two-second delay. Maybe put a note on your bathroom mirror.”

“Sure. ‘Don’t hit anybody. Have a nice day.’”
“Or you could use “two seconds” as a kind of stress mantra. For me it was, ‘for Marcus.’ By the time the kids were born, thinking twice was almost second nature.”

“That’s all it took?”

Maddy shakes her head. “No. Having my own home, my own family, my own money, all that helped. The place I inhabit in this world is far beyond what I expected growing up. It’s enough that I can relax.”

Maddy doesn’t discuss her family, but Erik has read her enough of her books to pick up on a few themes; daughters treated like servants, children taking on parental responsibility, hungry days and noisy nights. As far as Erik knows she only talks to the one niece, and while he’s seen her send money a few times, she never includes a note with the cheque. The kids refer to Marcus’s mother and late father as their grandparents. He’s not sure they’ve even met their mother’s parents.

“Marcus says you’re worth more than the rest of your family put together. Way more.”

“Hah! You see? What would I do without him? But he’s quite right, not that I’m such a paragon.”

Erik frowns into the darkness. “I still don’t know what I should do.”

“You’re doing it. And being an angry person isn’t the same as being a bad person. It’s not a portent of doom.”

“You sound like Dr. Brock.”

“She knows what she’s talking about. There’s a spectrum of healthy behaviour, and I like to think it’s a pretty broad one. I kind of have to. My former coworker has been a minor character in four of my books and I’ve given her a nice, painful death every time. Real mature, right? But I don’t care. I enjoyed it, and nobody got hurt. Marcus just finds it funny at this point.”

“I don’t have your talent for murder on paper.”

“No. You have your own set of talents. You’re going to screw up sometimes, but I believe you can do almost anything you set your mind to. And I hope someday you find someone like Marcus. You deserve that too.”

Erik just shrugs; he doesn't care about what he actually deserves these days. He glances into the back seat and sees that Noelle has managed to curl up under his jacket. She’s still sound asleep. Her mascara is slightly smudged under her eyes, and he’s reminded of early mornings in his distant past; so distant it almost seems like someone else’s life.

“Maddy, how did you know that I… that you and I are alike?”

Maddy slows as they approach the Peace Bridge. They’ll be home in twenty minutes and the kids might have a chance to sleep for two or three hours before it’s time for school.

“Andre told us you had anger issues right up front. We assumed that meant you were a hothead like Caleb Moore with his tantrums and silliness, but you were so calm and soft-spoken. I thought that maybe Andre was exaggerating so we wouldn’t be shocked if something happened. And then, oh, about two weeks after you joined us, Marcus said something about losing your dad and how sad it was and you said, ‘it doesn’t matter.’ I saw your face, and I knew. I recognized you.”

They pull into the driveway of the Holmes house and Erik gets out to wake Noelle. She’s still dopy and it’s cold and windy, so he helps her pull her coat on and walks her to the door. He promises to pick her up the next morning, don’t worry, his alarm is set. She protests that she’s not even that tired, and, yawning, leans against him for a hug and goodnight kiss. Erik watches her walk inside and waits for the sound of the lock before getting back in the front seat.

“You think you can sleep?” Maddy asks.

“Not really, but I’ve done all-nighters before and I don’t have anything after school for a change.”

“I’m not sleepy either. What do you say we get a box of doughnuts and some coffee and start our day?”

“Can you get doughnuts at this hour?”

“You get the best doughnuts at this hour. I’ll show you.”

***

Two dead, more than a hundred people hurt, some very badly, and who knows how many millions of pounds in damage: the Docklands Bombing, as the press is calling it, is a devastating end to the IRA ceasefire. It’s also an embarrassment to the government and a very public failure of law enforcement. For Francis Blake it is almost a personal affront. Canary Wharf was one of twelve possible targets he had personally marked in red ink. Worse, apparently the police had been warned, and there had been a communication breakdown - such a passive term - between the police and MI5. Blake would never suggest that listening to him might have prevented the massive loss and destruction, but failing to listen certainly didn’t help.

Blake is perfectly capable of maintaining a professional demeanour while inwardly heartsick. Rarely has that skill been so useful. He keeps a courteous tone when he discusses the matter with Director Montrose. Indeed, he is particularly careful to be diplomatic. Montrose is a stubborn ass, but he’s a canny old campaigner who knows when blame is looking for a place to land. The last thing he wants is a junior man throwing it in his face. Blake’s restraint does him no good. Montrose is icily polite and unyielding, and Blake finds himself relegated to analyzing mountains of irrelevant paper when he should be on the ground investigating. Montrose even suggests that Blake take some personal leave as he won’t be much needed in the coming weeks.

Fine. Blake has put in his time on the lowest rung before. He’ll keep his head down and use Montrose’s inattention to incorporate some flexibility into his schedule. The first thing he does is find Mark Dalton to see if he will talk. His invitation to go for a pint is accepted immediately, as if Dalton had been waiting for a call. They meet at a pub on Romney Street, a comfortable place, old-fashioned but clean and brisk. Dalton is a few years older than Blake presents, still very much a junior man. He has brown eyes and hair and a soft, genial look that belies his physical fitness. They take a table in the quietest corner and discuss the Docklands Bombing in general terms until Blake flatly says that he’s not a frontline investigator. He knows what Dalton knows, and no more.

Dalton is not surprised enough. He murmurs something about the importance of background work. Everyone contributes in their own way. Blake’s insights have proven valuable again and again.

“Does Montrose have something against me, Mark?”

Dalton doesn’t bother feigning surprise this time.

“Yeah. You know he does. He doesn’t trust you.”

“Is there a particular reason.”

Dalton looks somewhere past Blake’s shoulder. “Listen, I’m not a prejudiced man, but a lot of the older chaps are.”

“Ah.”

“Really, I have a cousin…”

“Come on. Let’s be adults here.”

“Ah. You’re right. I’m sorry. He calls you Francis Bent. He seems to think that people who practice vice - his words, not mine - are bait for blackmailers. I pointed out that you’re not keeping any secrets, but it didn’t make an impression.”

‘Thank you for that, I suppose.”

“He also thought you were pursuing that Golden Mu business for shady personal reasons. He had me do the minimum and closed the file just when it was getting interesting.”

“Interesting?”

“It looked like Fox-Devereux was picking up stakes, leaving the country.”

“I’d like to take a look at the file. I seem to have time on my hands these days.”

“I can courier you a copy if you like. The case is a nonstarter as far as Montrose is concerned.”

“Thank you. Of course, I don’t have to tell you…”

“We’ve never met. You’ve heard nothing from me. Right.”

When he gets back to his office, Blake resumes sifting through boring documents diligently and without complaint. On his break he initiates a search for police reports in Weybridge, Guildford, and the surrounding towns and villages. Shortly after four a messenger apologetically drops a thick envelope on his desk. Blake accepts it cheerfully and tucks it into his briefcase. It’s not a matter of getting caught; he simply will not work on his side project on company time on principle.

Nobody else disturbs him for the rest of the day. As soon as he is officially off the clock Blake flips through the file, searching for new information. He jots down a few names and places and puts in a request to have Friday and Monday off. He may not need Monday, and if that’s the case, Phillip will be glad to spend the day with him.

***

If this were a competition, Gideon would give himself top marks for adjusting to life in America. He’s figured out the driving and the money, and has been keeping his expenses to a minimum. With food provided by Mrs. Barton, he’s relying less on takeout and has started doing pushups and sit-ups for the first time since uni. He’s found a good drug dealer and a pub that serves passable food and drink. He even has the beginning of a little flock, although he calls it a discussion group for safety’s sake. His accent, clothes, and bearing go far in these small towns. The trick is to lightly allude to the trappings of his class - never rub it in - and subtly suggest to the women that they would be right at home in any fine country house or formal affair. To flatter the men, he asks for their thoughts and advice, but keeps coming back to the principles of the Golden Mu, pulling them into gradual agreement. It seems that American men are particularly interested in using technology to improve themselves, and the women in the idea of a well-ordered society. Of course, he only has a dozen followers so far, hardly a scientific sample. Also, they don’t really consider themselves his followers. Not yet. That will come.

Meanwhile, poor Kevin has gone nearly feral, working day and night in a refurbished barn, living on strips of dried meat and hard candy. Every few days he staggers into the house for a shower and some human contact and moans about missing Gilly. Sometimes Gideon doles out amphetamines, but in strict moderation. Usually he slips Pinker some E and they have a more-or-less innocent sleepover. Gideon doesn’t understand why Pinker is so tightly wound all the time. He has funding and equipment and apparently the work is going very well, but the closer they get to success the more nervous he gets. From Pinker’s late night babble he gathers there’s the question of human subjects on his mind. He’ll need them soon and is losing his mind at the prospect. Gideon does his best to reassure him: he has a flock of young, experimental idiots, Atcheson has his own people, and if that doesn’t work, they can always scare up a tramp or an addict. Pinker has indulged in the use of what he calls “surprise guinea pigs” before, but that was at home. Something about being on foreign turf has unnerved him.

Julia is doing better, but she’s not great, in Gideon’s opinion. Perhaps it’s all the walking and brown rice, but her cheekbones have sharpened and her pale eyes seem larger than ever. She’s like an evil queen from a fairy tale, beautiful, but Gideon would no more make a move than he’d stick his hand in a cobra nest. She’s become, well, intense is the nicest word for it. He didn’t really blame her for pitching a fit over the food situation, but that had cleared up fairly quickly, and while they’re all a bit frustrated with Parthenon, the money is coming in and Pinker is doing his job. He doesn’t mind smoking his weed on the porch or sticking to his own side of the house, but Julia is not very helpful to him these days and that stings a bit. The last thing she did for him was to book a small meeting room at the Elks Hall for his discussion group, but since then she’s been completely absorbed with her cards and her weird new geography hobby. She’d had Zabala install a huge cork board in the spare room she uses as an office and now it’s covered with maps and notes that don’t make any sense to him.

She’s also taken to collecting newspaper clippings old and new, and has been devouring books about local history and folklore. In fact, the best way to get a concession out of Julia these days is to bring her reading material, so whenever Gideon visits Lyons or one of the larger towns he picks up every newspaper he can find, from the slimmest community rag to the used copies of the New York Times he finds at the Elks Hall. She has a special pair of cotton gloves for cutting clippings and pasting them into different scrapbooks. When he’d made the mistake of asking what she was going for she’d explained that one was for Mega Wave history, another for Parthenon, etc. He had stopped listening after a minute.

At the moment Gideon has a favour to ask her, so he’s prepared a special bribe: a lovely, fresh copy of The Wall Street Journal and three ruby red grapefruit. You can’t say Gideon doesn’t know what a lady wants, at least when he wants something from her. Prize in hand, he finds her in her office and knocks gently on the doorframe, the wording of his request all worked out in his head.

“Ah, Julia my love. I thought you-“

“I’ve found him. Gideon, do you realize what this means?”

“Mmm. No? Were we looking for someone?” Why can she never just listen first?

“Ivan Ostrovsky! Look at this!” She jumps to her feet and nearly throws the newspaper in his face.

“The Cheektowaga Bee? Julia, what on earth?”

“Page twenty! Look at the pictures,” she’s rubbing her head like she’s trying to relieve a headache, but her eyes are shining.

Gideon sets his gift down on the desk and dutifully turns the pages. Sure enough, there are two colour photos of kids dressed in old-fashioned clothing. It’s just a school play rehearsal and, ah, yes, he sees it.

“It says Erik Ostrovsky. Not a common name, I suppose, but not necessarily our man.”

“Ivan Erik. It’s his middle name. Look at him, Gideon! Don’t you see it?” She grabs her blue-bound scrapbook and flips to a series of pictures of The Original Subject. “It’s so obvious.”

There is a resemblance. He can’t deny that. The Ostrovsky kid is shown in three-quarter profile with a shorter, baby-faced classmate. They’re wearing fedoras and loud, pinstriped suits, similar to the clothes worn in the oldest photographs, but theatrical, almost a parody of 1940s fashion.

“Look at this one.” Julia lays another picture down. This one is of Ivan Ostrovsky, taken in 1990. Together they look like a family album; grandfather, father, and son, except the dates are all wrong.

“Yes, I see it.” Good lord, she’s nearly vibrating. This will take careful handling. “It’s very intriguing. So gratifying to see all your hard work pay off.”

“This is just the beginning. The school is in Buffalo, right at the terminus of the ley line we’re standing on right now. Can you believe it? Performances are open to the public. I figure Saturday is the best bet. It will be crowded with parents and friends. We’ll be able to blend in, maybe eavesdrop a bit. It’s not even two hours away if we drive quickly.”

“Ah. Well, now, about that…”

“You don’t want to go?” Julia seems actually shocked that he would pass up the opportunity to drive four hours to watch an amateur production in a secondary school.

“Oh, I would! But don’t you think the two of us would be a bit conspicuous? People would want to know which kid was ours and whatnot, but also I have something going on that whole weekend. Gravel Ridge Assembly is having a big prayer meeting, and I thought it would be a good chance to flush out a few minions.”

“You’ll have to have one of your new friends drive you. Or rent a car. There’s no way I’m passing up the chance to see the son of The Original Subject in person.”
“Yes, of course, of course. I wish I could go, truly, but we’re going to need volunteers soon. You understand.”

Julia frowns, then nods. “I suppose you have a point. There’s no point in duplicating our work, not when everything is moving so quickly.”

“That’s right.” Gideon decides in that moment that he’s going to leave the fruit and quit while he’s ahead, but then he has an awful thought.

“You know, pet, I really admire the way you’ve taken this aspect of the work and just run with it. Amazing results! Do you have any kind of a, um, plan for when you get there?”

Julia gives him a narrow look.

“I’m not going to grab him by the shirt front and start yelling about the Mega Wave if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“No, no, no! I only wondered if you’d decided on an approach.”

Julia shrugs. “No approach, really. I just want to see him in person, hear his voice, get a feel for his situation if at all possible.”

“Very sensible.”

“It’s necessary, Gideon. I have a very strong intuition that we will need him at some point, maybe sooner than later.”

“Really? Atcheson has done well by us so far, apart from a few glitches at the beginning.”

“He’s done well by Pinker. I get the impression he’d just as soon be working with Pinker alone, don’t you? Keep him locked in a little Parthenon cell somewhere, toiling away.”

“Tossing him bits of pepperoni whenever he does a trick. Yes. But, really I think everything will be fine.”

“Will it? I wonder. From his point of view, what exactly do we do around here? For him, I mean.”

Gideon has no answer to that so he waves vaguely and retreats. He considers having a quick toke on the porch, but changes his mind. Maybe he’ll go visit the lab instead, see how Pinker is doing. Perhaps he should check on how well the hypno-disk is secured, just in case.

***

With limited time for his side project, Blake gets an early start with matters that don’t require travel. He calls the Fox-Devereux home in Alresford with the fiction that his car is still available if Gideon still wants to buy it. The secretary or butler who answers says that Mr. Gideon is away and maybe be away for weeks, perhaps months, as he is in America somewhere. That tells Blake that Dalton’s file is up to date on that point, and that the family has no dark suspicions about whatever their son is up to.

Although Friday is his day off, Blake calls the office to check in. He isn’t asked to come in, which tells him that Montrose is still acting the fool. He enjoys the luxury spending more time with Phillip over breakfast. His partner is very upset that Blake has been marginalized by the agency he’s served for decades, and no amount of pointing out that only a few people know of his long service will mollify him. Blake assures Phillip that if all goes well today, he will soon have enough to convince Honeychurch to intervene and they will, at the very least, have a nice long weekend together.

“And if Honeychurch won’t intervene?” Phillip asks.

“Then I find something else, Phillip. We don’t have to put up with much any more, my love, and I have no wish to be a martyr. Pick a place to go tonight so we can start the weekend off right.”

Leaving Phillip in a better frame of mind, Blake heads down to Weybridge, to the last address of Gideon Fox-Devereux. It’s a surprisingly pleasant place in a neighbourhood that has lost its former shine but is still respectable. Blake checks his watch. It’s just before 10 a.m. late enough to disturb the occupants, if there are any. He rings the bell, and to his surprise it is answered very quickly by a man in his twenties who is very unlike the owner.

“Hello, mate! Can I help you?”

“I’m here to see Gideon. I hope it’s not too early. Would you mind telling him that Tony Parker is here?

The young man - and he is no older than Blake appears - tilts his head apologetically. “He’s not here any more. We’re his tenants.”

“Invite him in, Jaleel!” It’s a woman’s voice from the back of the house. Jaleel, who is barefoot and covered in paint spatter, ushers him inside. The place is unfurnished except for a few metal folding chairs. A woman sporting overalls and bright pink hair comes in from the hall. She’s holding two clean paint brushes and it’s obvious that the pair have already been at work turning the walls white. Apparently the trim is to be blue.

“I can’t believe Gideon would leave this place. He always said it was the one place he could call his own,” Blake says. “Are you friends of his?”

“Never met him,” says Jaleel.

“We’re making it into a studio and teaching space. Can’t have performances here, of course, but it’s fine for what we have to do, at least for the six months we have it.”

“Six months! Well that shows you the risks of neglecting your postcards. I’ve been in Canada since January and had no idea he was moving. Did he leave a forwarding address?”

They look at each other and the woman shrugs. “I’m sorry. We’re dealing with an agency. None of us have even met the owner.”

“There was a woman, though. What was her name? Do you remember, Elaine? In Guildford somewhere.”

“That’s right. She had a shop with a funny name. Charm? Poise? Charity? It was one word, something like that.”

“Charisma?” Blake suggests.

“That sounds right. It’s some kind of spa boutique. But you know that, obviously.”

“Yes, thank you, you’ve been very helpful. Good luck with your…”

“String quartet,” says Elaine.

“Wonderful. I wish you success!”

Blake sets off to follow this new clue. If Elaine is right, this means that Julia Grenfell is involved in the American project, or at least working more closely with Fox-Devereux than he’d previously supposed. Of course, their relationship predates the Golden Mu business, so she could be acting as a friend, or a lover as Dalton had suggested in a file note. Blake is skeptical about that. Fox-Devereux is as promiscuous as his laziness will allow him to be, and Grenfell is a successful businesswoman, someone unlikely to suffer fools. Blake has the impression of a brother-sister relationship, at least from his distant observation. If only he’d had a chance to infiltrate The Order of the Golden Mu when it was active.

By the time Blake reaches the rose pink door of Charisma the business day is in full swing. He opens it to allow three well-dressed women to leave and steps into an intensely feminine place that smells of roses and fresh herbs. He sees what Elaine meant about “some kind of spa boutique.’ If you want a pillar candle, a silver bracelet, or an expensive chenille robe, this is the place. A pale teenage girl in a black dress appears at his elbow while he’s still looking around and offers her assistance. Her face crumples a little when he asks for a word with the owner, but she darts to the back of the shop and returns in a moment with another woman who is absolutely not who he is looking for. Damn.

“You were asking for Julia?” The speaker is a very small woman with round, hazel eyes and round, light brown curls. She looks about twenty, but it’s hard to tell the age of someone with that kind of doll face. For some reason she looks familiar. He’ll have to recheck the file photos.

“Yes, but not exactly. We have a mutual friend; Gideon Fox-Devereux? I went to his place and was surprised to find him gone. Serves me right for turning into a hermit for three months. The tenants mentioned Julia and of course, Gideon has talked about her many times, so I thought she could give me his address, as I was in the neighbourhood.”

“I’m so sorry. Julia won’t be back for a few months herself. I’m managing while she’s gone. Would you like to leave your name and number?”

Of course he would. Blake takes his time writing down his alias and the number for the mobile he’s using for these purposes. The young woman sticks close by, and Blake is reminded that as far as she knows he’s an attractive man her own age. Why shouldn’t he stick around for a while? He gives her the note and strolls around the shop, taking it all in. His sister has a birthday coming up, maybe she can suggest something?

She draws his attention to the bath bombs, the skin care sets (very popular) and the jewelry selection, or perhaps his sister would like something tasty instead? Blake picks out several packages of overpriced tea for Phillip, who appreciates this kind of thing far more than he does. She packs them into a silver box with pink tissue paper while the black dress girl rings him up. Something is bothering him and he can’t shake it. It could just be that she resembles some popular actress or singer, but he has to find out.

“You know, ever since I walked in I’ve had the feeling we’ve met somewhere. School, maybe?”

“Oh! Did you go to Surrey too?”

“Yes! That has to be it. For some reason I can see you at the front row of one of those big halls.”

“Always! That way I could ignore all the other people and focus on the lecture. I get so nervous in a big crowd.”

“I wish I’d had your diligence. I always sat in the back so I could look at the girls, shame on me. I must have finished just as you were starting.”

“Maybe?” She looks up at him and extends her hand. “You said your name’s Tony?”

“Tony Parker.” He shakes her hand. “And I didn’t catch yours.”

“Gilly. I mean, Gillian Montrose, but my friends call me Gilly.”

“That’s a very pretty name, Gilly. I hope to see you again some time.”

Blake smiles and tips an imaginary hat on his way out. He doesn’t rush or behave in any way that would attract attention; he hasn’t spent all these decades in the spy game for nothing, after all. He puts the silver box on top of the file in the passenger seat and collects himself. It looks like he will be talking with Honeychurch very soon, and very secretively.

***

Andre had the good fortune - and the brains and talent - to spend his last two years of secondary school at a fancy, smart kid academy a long bus ride from his home, and even he cannot believe what Silver Birch has to offer. They have their own ice rink! There’s a baseball diamond and a softball diamond. The art gallery boasts the best student work and fine art donated for inspiration. His old school had top-notch teachers and a very nice, multipurpose stage, but nothing like this. This is a performing arts centre that could be the pride of a small town. The only concession to the student body is that these theatre seats are covered in easily cleaned vinyl.

“Kind of makes you want to grab a torch and build a guillotine, doesn’t it?” Maddy is just to his right, between him and Marcus. Supposedly the famous Noelle is here with her host family, but Andre hasn’t spotted her yet.

“Just a bit. Mostly, I want Miranda to have this. All kids, I guess.”

“Don’t get me started. I’m glad mine had the chance, but…” she waves her hand around, taking in the mural, the velvet curtain, the klieg lights. “It’s a lot.”

He has a thought about that but it’s lost as the lights go down and the play begins. The set, at least, is modest, mostly a matter of lighting and paint, but it’s charming. Andre hasn’t seen the movie for years and has forgotten that Nicely-Nicely Johnson has the first line. Erik enters from stage left holding a racing form and Andre has to bite his tongue. In his suit and hat Erik looks so much like his former self it’s shocking, except the fedora is purple and the suit is black with purple stripes to match. He’s followed by two other boys in similarly gaudy getups.

Erik sings the first line from Fugue for Tinhorns: I got a horse right here, the name is Paul Revere.

Andre lets out his breath. Erik is doing fine and seems comfortable up there, so he can relax and enjoy the show. To his surprise, there’s quite a bit to enjoy. The cast’s Nathan Detroit and Miss Adelaide are excellent, and some of the girls playing various streetwalkers, showgirls, and missionaries are obviously real dance students as most of the choreography falls on their shoulders. Erik is no Stubby Kaye, and doesn’t attempt to copy the man who originated the role. Instead he plays Nicely as a nervous, high energy guy, friendly and helpful, but always looking over his shoulder, tapping his toes, jumping when startled. Andre wonders if he’s basing the character on a former associate.

After the love song that marks the end of Act I, Andre gets up to stretch and wanders into the lobby with Maddy and Marcus. A slender blonde girl bounces up out of nowhere and throws her arms around Maddy. “I think Erik is the best one, don’t you?” Ah, the accent. This would be Noelle. He starts to introduce himself but the girl is already off. Lieutenant Clark, of all people winds through the crowd to shake hands.

“I’m surprised to see you here, Jim. Everything okay?”

“Sure. Just being careful. And I wanted to see how he’d do.”

“And what do you think?”

Clark shrugs. “Not bad. I saw the Broadway revival in ’94. That was great. This is okay. He can sing.”

Clark salutes and goes back into the theatre, or maybe he’s checking entrances. Andre draws closer to Marcus who is talking about the costumes. Andre had assumed they were custom, but they’re mostly thrift store items that have been made over. Erik’s suit was originally black and white and a 44 long until it was dyed and cut down.

“He told me they didn’t quite set the colour right so it comes off on his skin if he gets too hot.” Marcus laughs. “You’d never know at this distance, though. It looks good if you don’t squint.”

The bell sounds and they head back to their seats. Erik isn’t in Act 2 as much, but then the action moves to the crowded mission and Andre sits up. This is Erik’s big moment, the “11 o’clock number” he’s been talking about. Nicely starts describing the “dream” that put the fear of god into him. His voice seems much stronger than it was in the earlier numbers, and he’s moving around more, the centre of attention. This is what Erik meant by all “the business” the teacher kept adding to the show. He’s walking across the tops of pews, jumping on and off the desk, all the while singing. At one point he punctuates a drawn out “sit down” by sliding into a split. Two of the dancing girls in missionary costume help him rise - still singing - and the number finishes. Erik holds his hat in mock piety and gives a quick nod to acknowledge the applause. He knows he did well, outrageous ham that he is. When it comes to the curtain call Erik gets another big round, and then the kids run off stage and the theatre slowly empties.

The lobby is crowded with families waiting for their performer. Finally Erik comes through the stage door in civilian clothes, his arm around Noelle. This time Andre gets an introduction. Noelle wants to make sure he and Maribella are really okay with her visit. She’s looking forward to seeing New York, one more big event before she goes home. She was going to miss Erik’s birthday but they moved the party to the 9th, before spring break. Marcus and Maddy are lavishing praise on Erik who is soaking up every bit of it. He catches Andre’s eye and raises an eyebrow.

“You were great, and you know it. Seriously, I was impressed. Good job.”

Erik grins and turns back to his family and girlfriend. A woman in a long red dress and matching glasses is telling Marcus and Maddy that Erik is ready for formal lessons if he’s interested. The key is to keep him singing, develop his skills, and not worry about vocal changes. Classmates come up to slap Erik on the back. Parents are congratulating each other. It’s all a bit hot and loud for Andre’s taste but he’s glad Erik is having his moment. What on earth will the Redwing people think when they see he has musical talent? Hassan will be horrified, for certain.

Andre looks for the exit and finds Jim Clark instead. The security man puts a hand on his back and leans in, as if in confidential conversation.

“Look but don’t be obvious. Tall, young woman in a blue shirt.”

Andre does as he’s told. The woman in question is striking, too young to be a parent of any student here. Perhaps an older sister or a young aunt? She waves at a group of people and follows them out the door.

“Who is she?”

“I don’t know, but she seemed to be listening in while you were all talking. Probably nothing. Just struck me. I’ll be in touch.”

He walks off, no doubt to watch her leave. Andre doesn’t like the necessity of this, but he’s glad Clark is a bit paranoid if it means Erik can be trusting.

Chapter Text

It’s past midnight when Julia returns, and the safe house is dark and empty. There’s still a light on in the lab, but she has no desire to talk to Pinker. Gideon has left a note, a rare courtesy; he found transportation and won’t be back until Tuesday morning. If she wants to use the car on his days, feel free. She can make it up to him later. Of course everything has to be a transaction. That’s Gideon’s way, just as her way is to make decisions quickly and take action.

She has much to say to Gideon, but perhaps it’s just as well that she has a day to reflect. It will give her a chance to sort out her own tumultuous feelings about what she’s witnessed and do a bit of reading. There's the remains of a bottle of white wine in the refrigerator, almost enough to fill a glass. She adds it to the grocery list and brings the glass to her room, where she cues up her favourite Enya CD and opens Gilly’s binder to the section on Redwing. “Oh, Mr. Ostrovsky,” she says aloud. “How could you leave your boy alone in this wicked world?”

***

The Guys and Dolls kids are high and bouncy when they return to school the Monday after their matinee performance. Erik comes in for his share of praise and ribbing, which is good for the ego, but his overwhelming feeling is relief. Once they finished striking the set late Sunday afternoon he’d felt the weight lift; mission accomplished, optimal results. He is seriously considering keeping up with the singing in some way, though. Ms. Miller thinks he has talent and the vocal practice has made his speaking voice stronger and more resonant. Also,he enjoys it.. Maybe he’ll try out for next year’s musical. He might as well, although the competition is bound to be fierce. Little Shop of Horrors only has three really meaty roles for men, and one of them is a carnivorous plant.

It’s lunch time and Erik has loaded his tray with a turkey burger, roasted veggies, and an orange. He spots Noelle at the sandwich section and moves to join her, but she detours to the table where Ricky Staggs is pontificating on the challenges of musical theatre. Erik follows at a distance to see what she’s up to.

Smiling sweetly, Noelle stands there until Staggs finally shuts up, and congratulates him on his performance.

“Can you imagine if you had succeeded in getting Erik kicked out of the play? You would be Nicely then, and how awful for everyone! Thank goodness you failed and the play went on properly. You were much more appropriate for Big Jule.” She smiles again and turns to join her boyfriend.

Erik catches up and puts his hand on her shoulder. “I apologize again for ever suggesting that you wouldn’t fight. Was it necessary to murder the man?”

Noelle giggles. “Cowards like that deserve everything they get.”

From the look on Staggs’ face it’s clear that Noelle’s words hit their target. He really thought he’d get the part of Nicely if Erik were expelled? Ridiculous. But hadn’t he told Andre about palace intrigue? The stakes never have to be high.

***

Blake promised that this meeting would not disrupt the day he and Phillip have planned together, and it won’t. Friday afternoon he’d called David Honeychurch, current chief of MI5, to ask if he wanted to “grab a coffee” some time soon. Honeychurch had in turn specified a place and time on his home answering machine, their established routine. They meet in a restaurant attached to a mid-price hotel a few blocks from Thames House and order coffee as part of the camouflage.

Wasting no time, Blake gives his assessment of The Golden Mu, Fox-Devereux’s relocation to the United States, and the Redwing connection. He has reports of strange assaults in Weybridge; pedestrians left lying in the streets, confused but unmarked, wallets and purses intact. Locals farmers have reported strange behaviour in livestock that can’t be explained by disease. Honeychurch takes it all in calmly, even the possibility of a teenaged Colonel Olrik. He’s seen what the Mega Wave technology can do, and he knows the kind of people who are drawn to it. It’s not the kind of thing you dismiss. He only balks when Blake suggests that Hector Montrose might be involved in some way. Montrose is not a pleasant man, but he’s a good man, at least as far as his duty goes.

That said, the evidence Blake presents is more than enough for Honeychurch to put him on indefinite special assignment. It will have to be discreet as no actual crimes have been committed by The Golden Mu group, not for sure. They’ll set up a channel so Blake can use company resources, including travel authorizations, plural.

“I assume you’ll be bringing Phillip with you to America.”

“I haven’t asked him yet, but I’m sure he’ll want to come. Nobody knows the Mega Wave technology better than Phillip. Nobody on our side, at any rate.”

Honeychurch lifts the cup to his lips and grimaces. It’s gone cold and was never that good to begin with. “Someday, some government is going to run with this tech, if they haven’t already.”

“I know, David, but we can’t just let it happen. And the thought of some cheap cult leader getting his hands on it is beyond the pale.”

“And this is personal for you in other ways, isn’t it? The possible Olrik connection?”

“Probably, I would say.”

“Really? I still say it’s a long shot. Too bad there’s no confirmed DNA sample for that man. Hell, we don’t even have fingerprints any more.”

“And how is that, I’d like to know. All those arrests and somehow the files go missing, get mislaid, get mixed up enough to destroy the provenance. Decades of criminal activity and all that’s left are a few partial prints and some photographs.”

“Almost as if someone ran a coverup years after Olrik was declared dead. But information gets lost all the time. People are careless. Fires happen. It was all a long time ago, as far as most people are concerned.”

“But it’s not over.”

“I hope you’re wrong, but I wouldn’t bet against you.”

***

Julia uses Gideon’s absence to do some research. That is, she visits the library in Lyons, hits a bookstore in Brighton, and has lunch at one of the few local places with vegetarian options while she doodles in her notebook. It’s a crisp, bright day so she goes for a stroll, mostly to play the attention game. With her height, looks, and long, wine-coloured coat she gets plenty of glances, envious and appraising. The mild buzz of a good meal, exercise, and anonymous flattery is almost as good as meditation. She catches sight of a brightly decorated storefront window and stops. It’s a confectionary shop that sells baked goods, chocolates, and ice cream. Shiny green shamrocks share window space with bunnies and baby chicks, and here Easter is more than a month off. Julia wouldn’t touch anything sold in the whole shop personally, but she knows people who would. She buys a large bag of foil-wrapped eggs, pretty little treats that any child would love.

Once back at the farm, Julia puts the books in her office and changes into her rough coat and boots. Candy in hand, she makes her way to the lab as silently as she can, approaching indirectly. She happens to be between the woodshed and the open side door when she hears voices: Zabala chatting, Pinker mostly grunting. She listens long enough to have her worst suspicions confirmed. Ducking down, she creeps around to the main door and knocks loudly before walking in.

She asks about the project and their health and presents her little gift. Pinker accepts it exactly as she’s predicted, by popping an egg out of its foil wrap and eating it whole. He mutters his thanks (“Mmmf. Goog.”) through a mouth full of chocolate. Zabala keeps grinning foolishly and Pinker looks more nervous than usual.

“Thanks for stopping by, Lady G,” Zabala says, his version of a subtle dismissal.

“I wanted to make sure you’re managing okay with Gideon away for a few days.”

Neither Zabala nor Pinker had even noticed Gideon’s absence. That itself tells Julia something.

“Don’t work too hard!” she calls back as she leaves. Don’t plot too hard either, you blithering idiot.

***

Blake has managed to create an instructive timeline of Gideon Fox-Devereux’s movements by approaching order members casually, as a fellow seeker. They don’t really remember meeting Tony Parker at a meeting, but by the time Blake is done with them, they firmly believe they do. This is how he learns that Fox-Devereux had an important meeting several weeks ago; he’d mentioned a possible financial backer and was looking for an impressive car. He’d ended up borrowing one from a cousin, an Aston-Martin, or something like that.

There’s only one male cousin close to Gideon’s age, and he happens to own an Arnage. Blake doesn’t bother with an alias for this interrogation. He tells Reg Clifford straight out that his cousin’s name has come up in a national security investigation. If he cares for Fox-Devereux he should provide as much information as he can, if only to clear the fool. Clifford is surprised but not unbelieving, having seen Gideon skirt the law before. But this time is different, he tells Blake. Gideon was eager to impress some big money man, all very hush-hush but quite legitimate. They were to meet at the Goring, and you can’t get more respectable than that, can you? Clifford even furnishes the date of the meeting. It was the day before his girlfriend’s birthday. That’s why he could only spare the car for the day. Blake thanks Clifford for the information and assures him that he’s most likely correct about Gideon. At worst, the man is over his head. Better not sully his reputation by spreading rumours. Clifford promises to keep mum. He’d like to talk to Gideon himself, but can’t as he’s somewhere in America and has neglected to forward his new phone number and address. That doesn’t mean anything, Clifford adds. Gideon has always been a bit careless and nobody is worried yet.

At the Goring Blake finds the vein all these nuggets have suggested. The head concierge, a Mr. Andrews remembers that day very well because one of the porters had a strange seizure. They never did find out why, but the man had been ill for two days afterwards, but he’s fine now. Blake shows him photos of Fox-Devereux and Julia Grenfell. Yes, he recalls those two. They were part of a group that came for a meeting in the Silver Room that day. He flips through the reservation records to refresh his memory. Ah, yes. It was booked by a Mr. Madison for his employer, Ronald Atcheson.

Blake feels the hair on the back of his neck prickle. Would that be the young Atcheson or his father? Andrews laughs and says there’s no possible way this man has a father living; this was definitely Ronald Sr., an American, very rich and very hard to please. He left an impression on all the staff. Andrews shows Blake the Silver Room, which is his personal favourite, small though it is. Blake paces around the room, then stops at the balcony door and steps outside. Below, two porters and loading bags into a taxicab. The prickle on his neck will not go away.

“Is that where your man had his seizure?”

“Why yes! But there’s nothing strange about that. That’s the pickup zone, so there’s always someone down there.”

Blake thanks him and leaves. He’ll have to make another early morning appointment with Honeychurch. Phillip will have to free up some time as well. It looks like they’ll be travelling soon.

***

Gideon returns unshaven, rumpled, and ebullient on Tuesday morning. Well, technically it’s morning, but Julia is already sitting at the dining room table having her usual lunch of brown rice and green vegetables, a book and a cup of green tea to her side.

“So good to see you back, Gideon! I’ve been waiting to talk to you.”

“Well, as it happens, I want to talk to you.” He had planned to make the first approach and, as always, she’s cut him off. Also, she seems too happy, which is unsettling.

“That looks so good, but I think I’ll have a sandwich or two. I’m famished. So busy!”

“I take it your minion hunting went well?

“A decent haul,” he concedes. “If I were to hold a fellowship night tomorrow, I could count on at least thirty to attend at this point. Of course, we have all the room in the world and meetings are off limits. Pointless.”

“I agree.”

“Do you?” Gideon slaps a half inch of cold cuts and cheese between two slices of sourdough bread. “You’d think Atcheson would realize that the public outreach aspect is as important as the technology. We won’t get far without true believers and future volunteers.”

“I don’t think Mr. Atcheson is interested in public outreach. Or ‘we’ for that matter.”

Gideon grabs a bottle of beer and pulls a chair over to sit close to her. “About that. After we talked last time I made a point of checking in on the lab. It seems to me that Zabala is a little too tight with Kevin. It looked like he was trying to drive a wedge in there, separate Kevin from us, just like you said.”

“It’s more than that,” Julia says placidly. “Zabala wants to ‘borrow’ the Mega Wave weapon and the hypno-disk and take them straight to Parthenon. He’s almost convinced Pinker.”

“That treacherous little weasel. Wait. Are you absolutely sure?”

“No room for doubt. The only thing that kept Pinker from handing it over to Zabala yesterday was his terror of someone breaking one of his precious toys. He has no sense of self-preservation, that one.”

Gideon curses, but without passion. Unlike Pinker, he has a well-honed sense of self-preservation and his wheels are spinning.”

“We could take it ourselves.”

“We could. And then what? We’d still need a backer.”

“Yes. That's why Atcheson insisted we come here, to isolate us. What about Redwing? Seems like a possibility. But there are probably a thousand companies that would pay for the tech.”

“Yyyess. There are plenty of Atchesons in the world, all equally exploitive. I was thinking of something a little less corporate, a little more personal and reliable. Specifically, Ivan Ostrovsky.”

Gideon groans. Not this again. At Julia’s insistence he agrees to listen while she describes what she saw Saturday night and what she’s found out since. She’s more convinced than ever that Ostrovsky was The Former Subject, absolutely vehement about it. Moreover, she now believes that the boy is the key to getting inside the company. Getting to him is not only possible but necessary. He’s not being raised properly, not at all. He needs The Order as much as they need him.

“Julia, love, with all due respect, you’re talking rubbish. He’s a rich kid going to a fancy school. I know the type. I was the type! Maybe you heard some moaning but he’s probably perfectly happy and spoiled rotten.”

“If he’s happy, it’s because he doesn’t know any better. I tell you, Gideon, it’s a bad situation, especially for a boy who will grow up to wield real influence in the world.”

“What on earth do you mean?”

Julia has some information she’s taken from the will, Madeleine Wattell’s author’s bio and a few newspaper pieces on Marcus’s work. Her imagination furnishes the rest. Ostrovsky’s boy is being raised in a cultural backwater by a couple paid to house him, an architect and an author with grown children in university. No doubt every penny from Redwing goes to tuition and luxuries for their real family.

“I’ve skimmed through two of her books. Drunken fathers, adulterous mothers. Drugs. Homosexuality. Boys who think they are girls. Pagan rituals. And this is her so-called young adult fare.”

Gideon grimaces. He’s no prude, but there are things children should discover for themselves. That’s what university and pubs are for.

“The only good people in her books are mixed race couples. You can guess why.”

Gideon shrugs.

She shows him the photo on the inside back cover. “Madeleine Wattell is married to a black man. They have two children together. Wave of the future. He’s working on a big synagogue community centre project right now. So progressive. So multicultural.”

Gideon looks at the photo. For a moment he thinks Julia is pulling his leg, but she’s dead serious. “Hard to believe that Ivan Ostrovsky arranged for that.”

“He didn’t. I’ve read the will. Erik’s legal guardian is a Mexican lawyer, another mercenary. He was given free rein, and look what he’s done with it. I bet his children will be going to school on Ostrovsky money as well.”

“He turned his only child over to some random lawyer?”

“Mmm, close. This Torres person is with Sullivan and Cromwell in New York. It’s one of those massive, bloodsucking outfits. The roster sounds like the United Nations: Tsai, Liebman, Dworkin, Wingo, Dhananjaya… you get the idea.”

Gideon nods. He knows the type of firm she’s talking about. They usually have offices in London, Paris, and Tokyo as well. “I sympathize with the boy, Julia, truly. But what can we do?”

Julia sips her tea and says nothing.

“I suppose we could talk to him. No harm in that, right?” Gideon continues, thinking out loud. “We could make an appointment, or visit him at his school. American schools are fairly free and easy, aren’t they? Have you thought of a way to meet him?”

“Not exactly, Gideon, but I know this. In a few days he’ll be sixteen, old enough to decide where he wants to live and how. He needs someone to show him the way. I feel somehow that we’ve been called to this.”

“The mission. Yes. I see your point. Our overarching goal is to improve humanity, starting one at a time. Now as for method—”

Julia holds her hand up. He hears the door shut and slaps a nonchalant expression on his face.

It’s only Pinker, smelling of wood smoke and looking like he’s slept in his clothes. He waves vaguely at Julia and Gideon and pulls a cardboard box of Neapolitan ice cream out of the freezer.

“Where’s Zabala?” Julia asks.

“In the lab. He said he’d hold the fort down while I take a break.” He picks a tablespoon out of the cutlery drawer and runs it across the ice cream, getting a bit of each flavour in a single bite. Pinker wanders around the kitchen as he eats, avoiding eye contact.

Gideon gets out of his chair and whispers in Julia’s ear. “Ten minutes. I’ll need you both.” He stretches and leaves the kitchen, an elaborate show of innocence wasted on Pinker

Julia glances at the clock, then at Pinker, who seems confused by Gideon’s disappearance.

“I’m glad you’re here. We were just talking about going into town for a supply run. Is there anything you need?”
“More ice cream. Bottled water. I want to get a camp shower so I don’t have to keep wasting time going back and forth every week. Uh. Do you have a pencil?”

Julia lets him jot down items in between bites of ice cream. At exactly 12:20 she grabs his arm and drags him out of the kitchen. “Come on, Kevin! We have an appointment!”

Kevin follows her lead, complaining all the way. He still has the ice cream when they reach the lab, but he’s lost his spoon and is out of breath. Julia bounds through the door and Pinker has to trot to catch up. His complaining stops in a hurry when he sees Gideon, Mega Cosh in hand, standing over Zabala’s prone and twitching form.

“Good timing, Pinker. I have your first volunteer for you.”

Pinker stares at Zabala, who is trying without success to speak and move his arms. He glances at Gideon, then Julia. The next step is obvious.

“Help me get him on the table. We only have a few minutes.”

***

Mortimer reads the notes on Ronald Atcheson and Parthenon with a growing sense of dread. The thought of this person, this outfit, armed with Mega Wave technology is horrifying. Septimus and Evangely had dreamed of armies of super soldiers, the ability to sway nations; Atcheson is already nearly there. Thank god Blake is on the case. How awful that Blake is on the case.

“I suppose you’ll be on your way across the Atlantic soon?”

“It could be as early as next week, Phillip. It’s a lot to ask, but it would be so helpful to have you at my side.”

“Of course, Francis. You’ll never know when you need a physicist.”

“I always need a physicist. But your expertise will be as welcome as your company.”

***

“Jump over the chair, Guinea Pig!”

Zabala does so, neatly as a cat, his face blank. Gideon is laughing so hard he can barely stand. It’s just so funny that it worked, so funny to see Zabala leap and dance like a puppet.

Julia pours him another slosh of whiskey. If they had planned better she would have bought champagne, but it was all rather sudden. She finishes her glass of wine and impulsively hurls it at Zabala’s head. It bounces off harmlessly and explodes into shards on the concrete floor. Gideon finds this utterly hilarious.

“Okay, you two, enough. I don’t want to give him a booster shot until tomorrow.”

“Oh, come on, Kevin. Loosen up.” Gideon hands him a generous shot of whisky. “You’re a success! Be happy!”

Pinker smiles at that, a thin, narrow smile, but the best he’s got. Gideon had promised him a guinea pig and he delivered. His Telecephaloscope is an ungainly thing, but it works. It’s powerful and it works. Pinker doesn’t need the whisky to feel drunk, but he slugs it back.

“Watch this.” Pinker picks up his welding torch and blazes it up next to Zabala’s arm. Nothing happens. Zabala doesn’t even flinch. Juia and Gideon applaud. Pinker is a hero. He’s finally won.

***

Erik’s birthday party starts with gifts, finger food, and Marcus staggering into the living room, shirt covered in blood, a knife protruding from his chest. He collapses to the ground, a piece of paper in his fist. Amy Yamada shrieks, then pounces on the first clue. The game is afoot! Clutching their rule sheets, Erik and his twenty guests hunt for the killer. They’re allowed to question any character they find, but can’t hide evidence or intimidate witnesses. The sheet includes a map with numbered stations. Maddy and Marcus have enlisted a whole cast of adults to assist, including Noelle’s host parents, Bob and Sheila Holmes, and neighbours who mostly know Erik from hearing him rehearse while walking Buddy. The clues and witnesses take them all over the house from the basement offices to the landing outside Erik’s attic suite where Caleb’s mother is brandishing a cigarette holder.

“Oh, my god! A mysterious woman!” Caleb hollers. He lacks his mother’s acting talent, but he’s having fun and at peace with one parent. Candice is wearing a black satin dress and her blonde hair falls over one eye, a reference to Veronica Lake lost on most of the guests. She tells them that she and Marcus were lovers, but his wife refused to divorce him. She tells them to grab a bag to hold their clues. Sure enough, there are shiny paper bags for all of them, black for the boys, bright pink for the girls, each holding a chocolate bar and a lip balm. They continue searching for clues, picking up different party favours at each station: pens, candy, socks, stickers, and keychains.

Dev and Charity McGovern team up to find the clue that leads them outside, where a fire is burning in the chiminea and Mr. and Mrs. Reeves from next door tell them about late night visitors and the sound of fighting. A shot rings out and Maddy appears at the upstairs balcony. “Avenge me!” she gasps, before dropping. From the next series of clues they discover that both victims had messy personal lives; financial problems; debt; scandal. They seem to have been strangers to each other. Or were they? Nothing is clear except that everyone is wrapped up in the mystery.

At the point where the kids have exhausted all the investigation stations and are starting to argue about the solution, the front doorbell rings. Erik has been told to answer it himself when this happens, so he brings the group to the entryway and opens the door to Jim Clark dressed in a wrinkled trench coat and a fedora. He introduces himself as Lieutenant Clark of the state police, to Erik’s delight. Clark divides the guests into four teams and has them assemble all their clues and theories and present their solutions to the group. The winning team includes J.T. and Amy, who know all the ropes from childhoods spent reading Encyclopedia Brown and Ten Minute Mysteries. They conclude that Marcus faked his death to frame Maddy (his long lost ex-wife) and provide cover to murder her. Maddy and Marcus return to the living room - still in their bloody costumes - to crown the winners. They literally have shiny paper crowns for each team member. They’ve spent their dead time getting pizza and cake, and fixing up a big bowl of punch. Mystery solved, the party guests apply themselves to eating and dancing while the adults have their own quieter gathering upstairs.

Around 11:30 the kids start to trickle out as parents arrive to pick them up. Bob and Sheila give Noelle a moment to say goodbye to Erik before walking her home. They’ll see each other tomorrow - she wants to give him his birthday gift in private - but he still wishes they had more time to talk. Some of the stragglers, adult and teen alike, do a quick sweep through the house to help tidy, but there’s still lots of work left. Clark helps Marcus load the dishwasher and when they’re alone he mentions that he’s seen a woman in a blue Honda Prelude hanging around the neighbourhood lately. Could be someone looking to buy, or just a visitor, but be aware. Marcus assures him that they’re always aware, and so is Erik.

Marcus Wattell is a reticent man who prefers to work behind the scenes, but being Mr. Body tonight was a blast and he’s so proud of Maddy for cooking up this party for Erik. The kid seems almost overwhelmed by it all, but in a good way. Maddy was right to arrange a group activity that took the pressure off Erik. It was great to see the boy get caught up in the game and the silliness of it all without worrying about winning or making sure everything worked out. He has a tendency to try to seize control of things, even when it’s completely unnecessary or there’s no need for control at all.

As he’s thinking of Erik, the boy himself comes over to buttonhole him, just as Clark had. Erik wants to know what he can do to thank Maddy for the party. It’s been so much and he didn’t expect the fuss but it was a wonderful birthday and he’d like to do something special to make up for it. A gift maybe? Some kind of outing?

“Don’t worry so much, Erik. She was happy to do it and so was I. Maddy wanted it to be special. Your thanks is enough.”

That clearly doesn’t satisfy the boy, so Marcus adds something he’s been considering lately. “You know, Mother’s Day is in two months if you want an excuse to do something nice for Maddy. I know she’s not really your mother, so if that’s weird…” Marcus trails off because Erik has the oddest look on his face.

“What about Michael and Sarah, though? Wouldn’t they see it as a usurpation, out of bounds?”

“What? No. Not at all! We all know it isn’t the same. There’s no pressure. I’m just saying that if you wanted to do something, that would be a great time. Just think about it.”

Erik looks very far away for a moment, then snaps back into the present. “If you want me to.”

“Good! Now go tell her it was the best party ever. That’s what she wants.”

Erik clearly doesn’t believe him, but he goes to Maddy to help her pack away leftovers. Marcus can’t hear him, but the boy is in pompous speech mode, judging by his posture. Maddy laughs and grabs him around the middle in a hug that shuts him up for a moment. It’s funny how often Erik reminds him of young Maddy. Of course, Erik never gets into the kind of trouble Maddy ran into at that age, but the potential is there.

***

Between the play and the birthday party Erik is a bit overwhelmed. It’s not the praise and attention; he knows himself well enough to admit that he could hear how great he is as a full-time job. No, it’s probably having to be ‘on’ and gracious for hours at a time while other people plan. It’s too much like diplomacy. He makes sure that Sunday is quiet. After chores he visits Noelle. Contrary to rumour, the mysterious birthday gift has nothing to do with sex. She gives him a monogrammed compass from Dalvey - a heavy, stainless steel instrument with a tooled navy blue face - and a book of international stamps. He’s lost several compasses in his life, but they were just tools. This one he will keep safe.

He doesn’t stay with Noelle for long. Final projects and midterms start tomorrow and while Noelle isn’t worried about her grades, knowing that she’ll have to make everything up when she returns home, she won’t stand in Erik’s way. He spends Sunday afternoon making notes and finishing his Mandarin translation, and Sunday evening writing thank you notes. Of course he thanked his guests in person at the party, but some of his gifts came by mail. Michael and Paul sent a kind note and a gift certificate for Barnes and Noble, Michael and Rosey Sharkey, a miraculously intact box of walnut cookies, and the Mitsumoto family a small painting of Lake Biwa by Satomi herself. Erik notes each one in his journal and adds reminders to return in kind. How regular people keep track of all their social obligations without a Michael is still a bit of a mystery, but he’s trying. Every time he thinks of chucking it all, Maddy’s remark about becoming “a bastard that nobody likes” comes to mind and he keeps plugging away.

He takes a break to call Andre to tell him all about the party. Yes, he’s pleased with his haul. He got a lot of gift cards, of course, but some interesting things as well, including a framed copy of the Guys and Dolls poster from Eddie Addams who played Benny, new hiking boots to replace the ones he outgrew in the fall, and some graphic novels from The Guys, all quite interesting at first glance. Even Andre has heard of Watchmen and Maus, so they must be pretty good.

“Pretty impressive, kiddo. And don’t forget, your birthday isn’t over. I think the Wattells will have something for you on the actual day. Also, Maribella might have bought something, not that you deserve it.”

“Are you serious? Why on earth would Maddy and Marcus do more than they already have? It’s madness, like an unending state dinner.”

“It is a mystery. God knows you don’t appreciate any of us enough.

“Uncle Andre? Bite me.”

“My goodness, kids today. Oh, Mari wanted to know if there’s any food Noelle doesn’t like or particularly wants. And what about going for dim sum on Sunday? Do you think she’d enjoy that?”

“We both would. And Noelle likes to eat healthy food, except when she doesn’t. She’ll probably be unsettled about going home.”

“Ah, that’s too bad. And how are you doing? You sound a bit stressed out.”

“I’m fine. I’ve endured stranger and much less pleasant things. I need to shed all this frivolity and focus on work for a few days.”

“Sounds good. You take care, and good luck with your exams. We’ll see you in less than a week. It will fly by, you’ll see.”

***

Gideon and Julia haven’t had an outing together since they came to the U.S. Julia hasn’t felt like socializing with anyone, and Gideon has been busy cultivating strangers. Today feels almost like the old days when Gideon would visit the shop with a coffee bribe to pick her brain, only this time they both have plenty of money. For security reasons they decide to purchase their items in different small towns in their area, steering clear of Lyons itself where they are already known. They stop at a hardware store in Marbletown and a sporting goods shop in Newark, then head north to Sodus to visit a pet supply store and have lunch.

Julia reviews her lists while they wait for their food. Aside from a few optional items and treats for Pinker they seem to have found everything. She’s not truly confident about their security arrangements, but they’ve done all they can.

“Do you think Madison was convinced?”

Gideon brushes off her concerns, as is his habit. He had ordered Zabala to repeat his words and only his words, and is sure he was completely persuasive. As far as Madison is concerned, Pinker’s tech is on its way. “I wouldn’t worry. If he doesn’t believe Zabala he’ll call back. If he’s really concerned he’ll come over himself and we’ll zap the crap out of him.”

“Be serious, Gideon. Although… I suppose we would have to. I wonder if Madison would make a good subject. He’s so much older and not terribly fit.”

“Maybe we’ll find out. Who knows how many volunteers we’ll have before we’re done?”

It occurs to Julia that managing a zombie army might be more work than she’d bargained on, but that’s what underlings are for. Perhaps she could get Gilly to make up some kind of org chart.

After lunch Gideon insists on going to Wolcott and won’t say why. It’s a surprise. She’ll love it. They can get Pinker’s horrible snacks on their way home. He takes over driving, taking them to an undistinguished strip mall. He asks her to wait in the car while he goes into an embroidery and graphic design shop.

Gideon returns with a square bundle wrapped in brown paper.

“Open it!”

She does so. It’s just a pile of black cloth. She pinches one layer and raises it to reveal a black, long-sleeved tee with a bright yellow mu symbol screen printed on the chest.

“How many of these did you buy?”

“Twenty to start. That was the minimum to get the discount. Paid in cash, of course.”

“Of course.”

Julia examines the shirt closely. The symbol looks just like the ones in the old photos, very striking and clear. He didn’t cheap out on fabric, either. Apart from the garish M, it’s a decent crew neck shirt that anyone could wear in public. Septimus himself probably wouldn't do any better if he were alive today. She briefly imagines a line of people standing at attention, all in their black uniforms, the symbol glowing.

“Excellent, Gideon. Really, very nice.”

“It’s a beginning. One day we’ll have the leisure to design better uniforms, have them made somewhere, with a proper crest and everything. It occurred to me that we should start owning the project in a more visible way.”

“Yes, I can see it. At some point we’ll have to look into mass production. Gilly could do that.”

“Sure. She’s been useful. I can see her playing a part in the organization. Not like you, but with some responsibility.”

“Mmm. You know, Gideon, I don’t know if I told you this, but I have never been more proud of you than when I saw you standing over Zabala.”

“Really?”

“Absolutely. You saw a problem, you took action, and you didn’t apologize. It was as if one of the founders of your family had returned.”

Gideon raises his chin imperiously and pulls on to the highway. Julia is an awfully clever girl, and it’s good that she’s finally realized something he has known his whole life, that he was born to be a leader. It’s simply been a matter of finding the right time and place.

***

To hear Caleb tell it, his history midterm was an act of torture from which he will never recover. Six paragraph answers and two short essays are too much for a man to bear, and his academic career - such as it was - is in tatters. He will have to change his name and grow a beard to live down the shame. His rant is mere entertainment and background noise to his lunch table group. Erik happens to know through Dev that Caleb has been studying with unprecedented diligence, so he lets him rattle on, unchallenged. Besides, his blathering makes Noelle laugh and it’s good to see him looking healthy and acting like someone with a head on his shoulders for a change. Erik wonders if this performance is Caleb’s way of telling people he’ll be leaving Silver Birch. It’s not a settled issue yet, but Caleb’s mother seems to be leaning that way. It might do him good to have a chance to reinvent himself, and the city isn’t that far away. He’s good company when he’s not playing the fool, funny and inventive, and quick to sense when a group of people need a bit of distraction or amusement. If Caleb does move, Erik will miss him a little. Same for Dev and J.T., actually. It’s good to have a posse whether you’re a military leader, a gangster, or a student.

Dev isn’t even listening to his friend. He and Charity are talking about plans for spring break. It sounds like they’ll be spending a lot of the time together, but Erik can’t figure out if it’s romantic or if their families are getting together. Maybe both? Dev notices him listening and shoots him a look that plainly says “you’re not the only one who can get a girlfriend.” Okay, then.

“What did you think of Mailhiot’s midterm?” Dev asks. He and Erik had their computer science exam this morning, and both finished early.

“Straight-forward. I kept looking for trick questions and didn’t see a single one.”

“Me too! It seemed too easy. I guess we’ll find out.”

“You both got As,” says Charity. “You’re a science genius, and Erik is a closet brainiac.”

Dev blushes like a debutante at that. Erik decides that Charity is a good match for him and lets them get back to their planning. Lunch is nearly over and Noelle is already waving goodbye as she joins Amy for World Lit, so Erik walks with Caleb.

“Is your mother still fine with driving Noelle and me to New York? We can make other arrangements if we need to.”

“No, she’s cool. When’s Noelle leaving?”

“Early Monday. Very early.”

“Aw, man. Too bad. But maybe we can hang. My mom will be in meetings all day, every day.”

Erik shrugs. “Sure. You can meet my aunt and uncle. Maybe they’ll take us to a ball game, if they’re not busy. They’re both lawyers though.”

Caleb grins in… relief? He must have been really worried about being bored, Erik concludes. Caleb hasn’t visited NYC since infancy, not counting airports, so it might be fun to show him around. If he acts up Erik can always plead a family obligation.

***

“You can finish packing now, my dear.”

“So soon! You’ve already contacted the FBI?”

“That was the easy part. Parthenon and Redwing took a little more work.”

“Were they suspicious?”

“Cautious. The president of Redwing’s security division is an old CIA man, name of Malcolm Browning; a very difficult man to reach. Once I got in touch he took it in stride. Atcheson Junior was skeptical, but he could hardly refuse the F.B.I., could he? He’ll probably have a dozen lawyers present.”

“So it begins.”

“Another adventure, Phillip. Just think how many we’ll enjoy together in this life.”

Chapter Text

Gilly waves goodbye to the last customer and locks the front door. It’s very late, but she can’t go home just yet. She gathers up the dessert plates and tea cups and starts filling the sink with hot, soapy water. She leaves the dishes to soak and does a bit of bookkeeping. Only eleven people attended the first special event held at the shop, but they each spent between five and ten pounds in addition to admission. The refreshments had cost very little and she’d managed to find an up-and-coming meditation instructor for a modest price, so the event turned a respectable profit. More importantly, six of the eleven were brand new customers. Word of mouth and strategic advertising will likely double attendance at the April event.

Gilly locks the day’s proceeds in the safe and washes the dishes. She only has access to financial records for the past five years, but this February had been the most profitable that she knows of, and March is on track to set another record. Thank goodness she hasn’t let Julia down. Not that her friend had asked her to do more than hold the line, but being able to make modest improvements is the greatest vindication Gilly could ask for. The special event night accounts for a very small increase. Most of her innovations have been unglamorous tweaks in bulk buying, finding a few new suppliers, and some targeted advertising.

Julia will be pleased when she returns, and that is what it’s all about. They haven’t talked much since Julia flew to American. She and Gideon have been very busy with their work and she never has time for a conversation, just a quick check-in. Gilly misses her friend but is flattered that Julia feels free to turn over the business so completely. The few times Gilly’s asked for direction, she’s been told to follow her own best judgement, and so far that’s worked out.

With the dishes put away and the store made ready for business tomorrow, Gilly has nothing to distract her from the puzzling invitation she found in the fax machine this morning. It’s from Pinker, of all people, and includes a note, a map, and a warning. He wants her to join them in the U.S. but doesn’t say when or why, except that “they’re close” presumably to his technology working. The red dot on the map must be their current location, an intersection of two country roads somewhere in New York State. The closest town is Lyons with a Y, probably named after some long dead pioneer. The warning is that she should come without mentioning it to Julia or Gideon, as a fun surprise to celebrate their success. How odd of Kevin to think of such a thing. He’s not the type to plan any kind of social event.

She could spare a fews days. A full week would be better, but she’s planning a store event for Easter and while Allison is a good girl, she needs direction. If Gilly goes, she’ll have to arrange her mobile plan so Allison can call. Allison’s friend Mae could come in to help, and of course Gilly would do as much as possible in advance. If she left in the evening and returned on a Sunday the impact on the store would be minimal. Gilly folds the papers in her bag and jots down a few notes. It will take some organizing, but that’s nothing to her, and it would be lovely to see Julia and Gideon again, and even Kevin in a way. It was really very sweet of him to think of her while he’s working on something that could change the world.

***
It’s a long drive from Buffalo to Brooklyn, but lively company makes the time go faster. Caleb’s mother, Candice, is a different person now that the divorce is final, much more relaxed and pleasant to be around. Erik mentally tips his hat to whoever she’s hired to be in charge of her face and hair. She looks far too young to be Caleb’s mother. Of course, much of her freer, happier attitude is from losing 200 pounds of boorish adulterer. She does most of the driving, but allows Caleb and Erik to take over for brief stretches on the open highway, just for a rest. She charms Noelle by speaking surprisingly decent French. Before she landed the soap opera, Candice did some modelling in Europe, where she picked up conversational French and Spanish, all years ago, of course.

“Hey, how come you never taught me French?” Caleb had no idea his mother knew anything beyond menu words until this moment.

“I started when you were really little, but your dad didn’t approve. There was… well, never mind.”

Now that he’s with a small group Caleb is a lot more frank about moving to New York. He’s actually hoping it will work out, that his mother will rejoin her show and he can finish his last two years of school in the city. He feels bad about leaving his friends, but for reasons he can’t articulate - and that Erik understands completely - he feels that being anonymous in a new school might be a real break. He’ll still be spending some holidays and part of every summer in Buffalo anyway, at least until he’s 18 or his dad completely loses interest, which could happen once the new baby is born. Oh, yes, dad’s fiancée is pregnant, due in late September. They’re scrambling to have a big wedding before she starts showing too much for a stylish dress.

“Are you going to be in the wedding party?” Erik asks. If nothing else this year has been a tutorial on how messed up seemingly normal families can be. Fascinating!

“Yeah, I guess. Put on a suit, stand on my hind legs, stay away from the bar. I thought about telling everyone what I think of them at the speeches, but mom said they wouldn’t get it. I’d just be the jerk spoiling dad’s special day, so, whatever. At least he’s less of an asshole with Meghan than he is with us.”

“She has a way of keeping him in line that I never managed, I’m afraid,” says Candice. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I’d hoped to do better by you.” She glances at Noelle. “You see, my parents have seven marriages between them so I never learned normal. I promise to thoroughly vet my next prospect. Maybe hire detectives.”

With that background no wonder Candice isn't upset at the idea of her husband forming a new family, Erik thinks. Then Noelle pipes up with the story of her parents. She tells it lightly, making everyone laugh and minimizing her own hurt. At least they've settled their financial issues. Her mother will keep the business and her father will get a settlement and his freedom.

“She went right to the men guiding his conversion, and then somehow everything went smoothly. I don’t know why, but I’m glad. At least nobody will be screaming when I get home, and René will be there.”

Candice tells Caleb he should be happy that his dad is living the cliché and not acting out in a more creative way. Although creative people can be perfectly good parents; look at the Wattells.

“Oh, except you’ve only been with them a year, haven’t you? I’m so sorry. I forgot that you lost your father. My apologies.”

“It’s okay. I didn’t know him very well. And he paid some Hungarian grad student whose name I don’t even know cash money to gestate an heir. Then he then sent me off with nannies and tutors, so, as you can imagine, I’m not even a little sad about living with Maddy and Marcus.”

They agree unanimously that Erik wins the prize for weirdness, and the talk turns to other family stories. Erik can hardly believe how easy it was to drop that bit of gossip into the world. He’d been worried about releasing the more recherché details of his cooked up back story, and they all just accepted it. Now Candice is talking about when her father’s third wife had an affair with her mother’s second husband. Welcome to the trash family club, Erik, you barely qualify. He’ll have to do this from time to time so when reporters or investigators start asking questions, there will be a nice, brightly lit trail to follow.

It’s supposed to be a seven hour trip, but traffic through Newark slows them down, and it’s well past dark when they reach Brooklyn. Candice follows Erik’s directions until they’ve pulled up in front of the Torres-Gutierrez home.

“A row house! Oh, how charming! Back when I was working I used to dream of buying one of these places. Caleb, look at the ornamentation in the brick. Oh, and the bay window! Classic!”

“My aunt and uncle own two units, but they rent one out.”

“Smart play. New York real estate is the best investment you can make.”

Said aunt and uncle are coming down to help with luggage. Maribella has Miranda on her hip, but manages to shake hands with Noelle and Candice, who insists on helping with Noelle’s bags even though she’s wearing four inch heels. Erik watches Maribella almost succeed in playing it cool. She meets with millionaires and politicians regularly, and here doofus Moore’s mother is turning her head. Candice and Caleb are staying with friends in Manhattan, so they need to get going, but Candice promises to bring Caleb back some time. Perhaps Erik would like to see a television studio? Perhaps Andre and Maribella could come with their beautiful little girl? Caleb rolls his eyes at his mother’s theatrical graciousness, but there’s no resentment in him.

“See you, Erik. You guys have fun.”

“Sure. Hey, Caleb, wait a second so I can write down the house phone number. You never know.”

They say their goodbyes and Maribella sighs. “My god, she’s still so beautiful. I can’t wait to tell my mother.”

“Thinking of switching to entertainment law, Auntie Mar?”

“Ugh. Noelle, your boyfriend has no sympathy.”

“He’s a beast, but I still like him.”

“Come on in and see your room. We’ve fixed it up a bit. You’re probably hungry too. I know Erik is. He always is.”

“I am hungry! Erik told me what a great cook you are.”

“Did he? Imagine him appreciating his poor aunt.” But she’s smiling and she gives Erik a squeeze as they go inside. “Erik does have his moments. You just have to have him hang out long enough so he can grow on you.”

***

When Julia finds herself bringing her thumbnail to her mouth for the third time she realizes that the situation requires more than a cup of tea. She centres herself with thirty minutes of meditation and unwraps the cards. The energy isn’t there for a full reading, but she can manage a three card spread. The takes a deep breath, shuffles the cards, and draws: Ten of Swords, reversed; Page of Wands; Death. Interesting. She’s not surprised to see the Page of Wands. He’s turned up so often in her readings lately she’s come to refer to him as Erik. Death is a significant card, but not surprising when one is involved in monumental enterprise. What they’re doing is revolutionary, so new beginnings are the least of it. The reversed Ten of Swords is a puzzle; inevitable end, nowhere to go. She interprets this to mean that not only are they on the right track, it is the only track.

There’s a knock at the door.

“What is it, Kevin?”

Pinker opens the door a crack, although she has told him before never to do this.

“I see Gideon’s car coming.”

“I’ll join you in a minute.”

“I don’t know why you bother with that nonsense.”

“I don’t know why you subsist on chemicals and the flesh of tortured animals, but we all muddle through in our own way.”

He backs off and Julia takes her time putting the cards away. She leaves them wrapped with a rose quartz crystal on top and follows Pinker to the front stoop. Gideon pulls up in the Prelude followed by a plain white van, which comes to an abrupt stop too close to his back bumper. Gideon steps out of the car and grins, a little sheepishly.

“It worked? You did it?”

Gideon nods at her and calls Pinker over. “Your boy is going to need a booster shot.”

Pinker opens the door of the van and leads Zabala out by the hand. The former bodyguard seems dazed. “How did he do at the car rental?”

“I had to stand there and prompt him,” Gideon answers Seeing alarm on Julia’s face, he adds, “I wore my hat and sunglasses and used an American accent. Don’t worry. I told the woman he had a vocal cord injury and had to avoid talking as much as possible.”

“But he followed orders?

“Yes, but he’s generally clueless. I told him to follow me in the van and he ran a red light almost immediately. Luckily, nobody was around. I had to get out and tell him to follow me and obey all traffic laws and avoid hitting things in the road. I can’t think of everything all the time! Pinker, is there any way you can fix that?”

“I’m in the process of fine tuning the transmitter, but…” Pinker goes vague, retreating inside his head.

“But?”

Pinker grimaces. “It’s a question of how much information is required. And distance. I told him to obey you, and he did. The technology works, but combining obedience with flexibility is an issue. What little data we have suggests that different subjects respond in different ways. I need more fodder than just Benny Pig here.”

“You’ll get them soon enough, Pinker. Go look after him while I talk to Julia, all right?”

Pinker leads Zabala away. It occurs to Julia that he probably didn’t have a pet as a child. Perhaps this is compensation.

“We can’t just send him to New York on his own with instructions. This mission requires quick thinking, the ability to react.”

“You’re right. I had hoped for better, but he’s a super-powered simpleton. Of course, Zabala was never the sharpest tool in the shed, or perhaps it’s operator error.”

“Julia, I see it all now. It has to be you and me. Pinker is, well, you know what he is. I need you, because without you on board nothing is going to happen.”

Julia thinks of the Ten of Swords and smiles. “Gideon, this is our destiny. This is what we were meant to do. Of course, I’m on board, no matter what.”

“It could get untidy.”

“None of that matters. Strength is what matters, and we have that.”

“We do. Together. Now come out and help me with the plates, luv.”

***

Leave it to Blake to get right to business the second he has a phone and a desk. He’s been making calls since they settled into their room at the JFK Marriott. Phillip, in the meantime, has unpacked for both of them, taken a long shower, and ordered lunch in. They left London early in the morning and thanks to time zones, it’s still early and he’s already tired. Perhaps he can talk Blake into taking a healthy nap after lunch. Perhaps Blake will be amenable to other healthy activities before they get to work in earnest.

“What’s the verdict, Francis?”

“We’ll meet Special Agent Walker in Rochester tomorrow. Ronald Jr. didn’t want us anywhere near his business during the work day, but he’s agreed to meet with us on a Saturday afternoon. We’ll be flying out, I’m afraid. Small plane. Sorry, Phillip.”

“And another small plane back the same day, I suppose.”

“Quite right, unless we find another avenue of investigation in the area. There might be a great deal of back and forth with this case. Certainly until we locate those Golden Mu idiots.”

“Mmm. Was that Walker on the phone?”

“No, that was Malcolm Browning, our contact at Redwing. We have an appointment with him on Monday afternoon. Heaven forbid he come into the office today to save us time. You’ll like this: apparently the young heir is spending his school’s spring vacation in the city. We might be meeting him.”

“Indeed! If he is who you think he is, that means he’ll be forewarned.”

“And if he is just a boy, what reaction would be normal? It will be interesting.”

“Very, but there’s not much more we can do today, is there? We’ll have to stay up late to get used to the time change, and I had a few ideas to keep us entertained.”

Blake closes his notebook and smiles. “We do seem to be in the phase of the investigation where patience is required. What did you have in mind?”

***

Andre wakes up Saturday morning to the smell of coffee. Maribella is at his side, still asleep, which is confusing until he remembers the kids. He slips out of bed quietly and goes to the nursery where Miranda is standing in her crib. He changes her pull-up and carries her into the living room where Noelle and Erik are drinking coffee on the couch, feet entwined. Erik is wearing yesterday’s clothes and has smoothed down his hair as much as possible. His bedding has been folded and set aside. Noelle has a long, grey hoodie over her flannel pyjamas.

“There is plenty of coffee left,” she says. “I can take the baby while you get it.”

Miranda doesn’t wait to be invited. She climbs up on the couch and settles in between the big kids. Whatever they were talking about will have to wait until Her Tiny Majesty has been entertained and adored. She insists on sitting on “Wick’s” shins while Noelle makes the most of her half semester of Spanish by reading Un Pez, Dos Peces, Pez Rojo, Pez Azul with Erik’s occasional assistance in pronunciation. Andre and Maribella plan to enroll their daughter in a dual language public school, and, like true New Yorkers, they’re preparing her early. Andre watches them until Erik catches his eye and shrugs.

“I’d help you with breakfast, Andre, but I’m pinned down here. Can’t move. Impossible.”

“Help daddy, Wick!” Miranda orders, moving from his legs to Noelle’s lap. He shrugs again, and obliges, cracking and beating a dozen eggs while Andre prepares the filling for a family-size frittata.

“Has Noelle given any thought to the weekend agenda?”

“That’s what we were talking about. We don’t have a lot of time and we don’t want to run you ragged. We thought today we could do the flea market and Brooklyn Bridge Park today if the weather stays nice. Tonight we could go to Piccola like we did for my last birthday. Would that be okay?

“Sure. It’s a shame she only has two days. We could take you farther out, you know.”

“I know, but Noelle really doesn’t want to be a bother. Tomorrow we’ll go to the Met. That will do for New York glamour for this trip. There will be others.”

“We’d be happy to have her visit again. Noelle’s a sweetheart.”

“She is. All my friends are. I run with a good crowd these days.”

“Pretty easy at Silver Birch, I’d think.”

Erik shakes his head. “It’s a choice. You’d be surprised how much crime and violence there is at school. The perps have fortress families and high-priced lawyers, that’s all. I avoid those people but everybody knows.” Erik finishes beating the eggs and hands the bowl to Andre. The coffee is all gone, so he sets about brewing another pot. Keeping his voice low, he touches on what he’s seen over the last eight months: the unplanned pregnancies, the bullying, the drug use, the drunk driving. One girl in twelfth grade switched schools with a semester to go because a group of mean girls decided she was a lesbian. Another boy beat up his girlfriend so badly he ended up in juvie. She’d needed corrective surgery and was sent to school in another state. There are plenty of sadists and punks at his fancy private school, but his chosen companions have earnest ethical debates and talk about risk behaviours unironically. They’re the kind of kids who would attend a murder mystery birthday party with adults on the premises and have a great time.

“In other words, they’re people whom you despised in a previous life.”

“No, they’re not stupid or hypocritical, not more than anyone else. They don’t claim to be saints, just from another world.”

“Your world now.”

Whatever Erik has to say to that is lost as Maribella comes out of the master bedroom, freshly showered and dressed. “Thanks for letting me sleep in.” She kisses her husband, pours her own cup of coffee, and joins Noelle on the couch. Miranda flings herself at her mother, done with reading for now.

“Pretty group, aren’t they?” Erik says, to Andre’s surprise. He’s right, though. Maribella has such a bright smile and gentle eyes. Noelle is lovely in a quiet, silvery way The baby, of course, is the cutest child ever born. Odd that Erik would notice that.

“I know you worry that I’m just acting the part.”

“Can you blame me, Erik? Honestly?”

“No, because you’re right. I am just acting. But so is everybody else.”

Andre could smack him for that, but he refrains. Mari says that the boys are being slow with breakfast and obviously need help, so everyone off the couch. They’d better fill up on frittata and fruit if they hope to avoid the trap of the Brooklyn Flea snack vendors. No point in spoiling your appetite with fried dough when you’re having Italian for dinner.

***

The best Phillip can say of the flight to Rochester is that they’re met promptly on arrival. Special Agent Bradford Walker of the Buffalo office is the kind of man who is always early and prepared. He resembles a young Sidney Poitier, not only in appearance but in his grounded, watchful energy. Young is the key word here. He’s as young as they are, but for real, a man at the start of his professional life. It very quickly becomes clear that he isn’t here just because new guys get the snipe hunts. Walker has memorized the advance information from Blake - a heavily edited history of the Mega Wave - and spends most of the drive to Parthenon asking Mortimer about the technical aspects. It pains Phillips to start with, “Assume to start that the Mega Wave is real” but he manages.
Walker has questions for Blake as well: how reliable were the witnesses who saw the Yellow M repel bullets, shrug off flames, and brush off attackers as if they were flies. He seems troubled when Blake tells him that several of the witnesses were trained police officers and intelligence men of good repute.

Parthenon’s head office is on the edge of Rochester, not far from the airport. It’s a series of white concrete and glass cubes with the company name above in massive red letters. Unlike Redwing, Parthenon sits alone on heavily guarded acres. Today nobody is working except security guards and a few executives, including the current CEO. They’re met outside and escorted to the top floor where Ronald Atcheson Jr. waits. As Blake had predicted, he’s accompanied by three lawyers, an assistant, and a stenographer. Nobody has any objections when Walker asks to record the meeting.

Walker introduces Blake and Mortimer as technical consultants from London. He leads what all parties agree is a discussion, not an interrogation. Walker’s line is that the F.B.I. is investigating some sinister foreigners targeting security firms, Parthenon among them. They may have approached Atcheson senior earlier this year. Atcheson junior is perfectly polite and mildly curious. He answers all their questions without hesitation. Yes, his father went to England earlier this year. He travels a great deal now that he’s not directly involved in the business. Yes, Parthenon has a number of offices in Europe and the U.K. A list can be provided if they wish. Yes, Parthenon is involved in a number of innovative technologies, all both legal and confidential. Parthenon is a respected partner in national security, and shares information when needed through the appropriate channels.

Atcheson becomes even more bland and polite when the talk turns to his father’s unusual political and spiritual interests. He appreciates their talking to him rather than harassing an old man about his hobbies. There’s no crime in being interested in spirituality and social causes, is there? His father has a habit of donating money to odd causes and eccentric inventors, especially since Ronald’s mother died. Nothing has ever come of it and the company isn’t involved. There have been con artists in the past, and they’ve been tossed aside.

“My father is still very sharp, and if some shady characters from the Old Country are trying to get one over on him, they’ll be disappointed.” Atcheson inclines his head at Blake and Mortimer, and smiles thinly. He hasn’t spoken to either of them directly once.

Walker concludes the interview by urging them to keep in touch, report anything suspicious, no matter how small. Two security guards arrive to escort the agents out. None of them speak. When they get to the car Walker completes a quick scan with a radio frequency detector. Inside his own suit pocket there’s a thin plastic lozenge about an inch long. “Interesting.” He puts it in a small metal box for future study. Blake shrugs. “Can’t say I’m surprised. Clearly he only agreed to the meeting because he has his own suspicions.”

“Dear old dad is up to no good, or at least he thinks so,” Walker says as they pull out of the parking lot. “He won’t talk to his father about it, though. Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll quash this Mega Wave crap himself.”

“If he tries he’ll be in over his head, just as his father is now. I don’t think the sons are involved or the company, at least not officially. Heaven help us if I’m wrong.”

“Septimus was able to work with the Mega Wave technology on his own,” Phillip adds,” but even he embezzled government resources outrageously to do so. This work takes space, a secure facility, and a tremendous amount of electrical power, not to mention equipment. You couldn’t do it without leaving a footprint.”

“Then we’re back to good, old-fashioned police work. Unless you gents have another avenue of investigation, I’ll drop you off at the airport. I’m going back to the office to start making a list of all properties owned by the Atchesons and their company. Anything I should be looking for in particular?”

“Probably a rural area, a large property with no neighbours. They’ll be close to a town or city, but not likely within one,” says Blake.

“They’ll need a structure like a large garage or small warehouse, ideally somewhere protected or even underground,” Mortimer adds. “There could be reports of odd lightning activity or power outages nearby.”

“And if, god forbid, they’re conducting experiments, there will be reports of assaults, accidents with memory loss, strange behaviour in animals. That’s the pattern so far.”

Walker drives on, asking more questions about the effects of the Mega Wave. He seems particularly struck by the idea of armies powered and controlled by Mega Wave technology. He served four years in the U.S. Army before college, including time in Panama and has encountered more than one commanding officer who would vastly prefer high-powered zombies to ordinary men and women.

“Is that what drew you to this case? Or were you conscripted?” Blake asks.

“I volunteered, not that I had to fight anyone off. You don’t want to get me started on cults. It’s been a special interest of mine since undergrad.”

“That sounds fascinating,” says Phillip.

“I’ll send you my thesis if you’re really interested. What’s your next step?”

“We have an appointment to see the head of Redwing’s security division. Ex C.I.A.”

“Great. A company man. Maybe I’ll get a rundown of all their properties too, not that they’re anywhere near Parthenon’s league, but they’re both tied in with federal contracting and international spying. No offence.”

“None taken,” Blake says. “I don’t like the idea of any government using this technology, not even my own. Or a close ally, naturally.”

***

Dining with a toddler is always a challenge but Miranda does quite well with her tiny portion of cacio e pepe with one meatball. Her presence doesn’t stop Erik and Noelle from having a good time. Erik says there’s been enough birthday fuss already, he doesn’t need to be the centre of attention. Andre and Maribella present him with a basic point-and-shoot camera loaded with film and a copy of Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian.

“There are about a thousand books in this series, so if you like this one, there’s plenty more,” says Maribella. Erik thanks them and asks her to take a picture of him and Noelle together. He snaps a few shots of his own: Andre and Maribella, Miranda with the new ladybug barrettes from the flea market, Noelle resting her chin on her hand.

“That’s a lovely bracelet,” says Maribella. Noelle’s only jewelry is a silver snake chain with a single barrel charm of a moon surrounded by stars.

“Thank you. I love it.” She gives Erik a smile that tells that whole story.

When the waiter comes for their dessert order, Erik asks him to take a picture of the group. It occurs to Andre that Erik must have quite a collection of family photos by now. They’ll have to pick up some albums.

There’s another group photo at the dim sum place Sunday morning. When they’re done, Andre and Maribella head home with the baby, tired and full of dumplings, while Noelle and Erik go to the museum for her last afternoon in New York. They’ll return for dinner at home, an early night and goodbyes, as Noelle has to be at the airport by 5:30 Monday morning.

Maribella watches them leave hand in hand and shakes her head.

“They’re an odd pair, but kind of cute together. He has decent taste in jewelry.”

“Noelle likes him, he’s good to her. It seems fine to me?”

Maribella takes his hand. “Oh, I know. It’s just weird to see him being adorable. Did you notice how he code switches now? He talks to us like a military school prefect and to Noelle like a real boy. So yay, progress. It’s good to see him happy. I like how they act with Miranda. This should be a good week, except for tomorrow.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll get up without waking you. And Mr. Fordyce is going to drive them to the airport, thank god.”

“And then Erik will spend the day at Redwing. Fun!”

Andre can’t argue with that. Erik does intend to spend part of the day at Redwing. He wants to check in with Doris and Assiz, and Malcolm Browning is meeting with two British spooks in the afternoon (“two guesses as to who they are”). Andre doesn’t think this is necessary, but he understands why Erik wants to get it over with.

“I think he’s going to do some shopping and see a movie. He mentioned Fargo.”

“A nice wholesome comedy. Actually, I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. Maybe we can all go together. There’s no way he’ll get around to a movie tomorrow. I’d bet money.”

***

Kevin Pinker doesn’t like the plan, but Gideon is in charge and has overruled every objection. They have to go to New York because Julia may have been clocked in Buffalo. They have to get to this target because of history and future funding. They need to take Zabala for obvious reasons. They must leave soon because of moon phases, the school break, and the looming threat of Atcheson and Parthenon. They can’t take Pinker because someone has to tend the equipment.

Of course, Pinker doesn’t want to go, so it doesn’t matter that he wasn’t asked. Why would he want to leave the lab? He has work to do. The technology is a success, no question. He’s accomplished something incredible in a very short time, but, as he would tell any fellow scientist, it is prototypical, proof of concept only. Subject Two, as they call him, seems to require a booster treatment every 24 to 30 hours. His performance is uneven: incredible physical strength, speed, and self-armouring ability coupled with mental inertia. Pinker has no idea if the Mega Wave process can be reversed, which is something nobody has even attempted.

The biggest pebble in his shoe is the two-way communication array. Subject Two follows directions perfectly if they’re specific enough, but he can’t give feedback. Septimus could see through his Guinea Pig’s eyes and hear through his ears. He was a perfect puppet master who could provide up-to-the-second directions or assign tasks without micromanaging, at least if the notes are to be believed. Pinker has a few ideas on this, but even the simplest requires surgical implants and Pinker is no surgeon. The most sober reports of the Yellow M affair indicate that The Original Subject could pluck a man from his own cosy study like a child scrumping an apple. This is the goal, but it’s so far off. What he needs is resources, and that’s on Julia and Gideon. He’ll give Zabala a booster treatment at 10 p.m. and then they’ll all go to New York without him. It could take one trip, it could take five, but it must be done. Pinker will need much more time and many more ‘volunteers.’ In the meantime, he will do as he’s told.

***

Andre wakes up with a start at 4:10 a.m. He turns the clock alarm off and slips out of bed as quietly as possible. Erik isn’t in the living room and his blankets are neatly folded. There are voices behind the guest room door. Andre knocks softly and Erik opens the door. Both kids are dressed and ready to go. Noelle’s bed is already stripped and the room is neat. She fastens the smallest suitcase and grabs her jacket from the hook.

“Got everything?”

“Yes. Passport, ticket… oh! I forgot my snack.”

“I’ll get it,” says Erik. “Don’t forget to check the bathroom.”

She finds a lip gloss in the bathroom. Erik gets a lunch bag of dried fruit and chocolate from the kitchen. It all goes in her carry-on bag. One final check of the room and they’re ready. Andre and Erik grab the big bags and put them on the stoop.

“Thank you again, so much,” Noelle says. “It was so nice of you to let me stay.”

“You’re welcome back any time, honey. We loved having you.”

The street is dead empty until 4:30 when Bill Forcye pulls up in front of the house. He gets out to meet his passengers and shake hands with Andre. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you to the airport in time.” He puts Noelle’s bags in the trunk and opens the door of the back seat for her. Erik checks his pockets: wallet, new camera, phone, book. He’s ready to go too.

“You really spending the day at Redwing?”

“Sure. I’ll read, write letters, maybe nap. I’m not worried”

“If you’re not worried, I’m not worried.”

“If you like I’ll meet you at the office and we’ll ride home together. I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Just be careful, okay? I know I say that all the time, but seriously, listen, be careful.”

“I don’t mind you saying it.” Erik gets in the car and they pull away. Andre can make out Noelle waving to him through the tinted glass and waves back. He’s glad that Fordyce is in charge of the pair. You couldn’t ask for a better guardian.

When they get to the airport, Fordyce helps Noelle with her bags and gets a cart. At Erik’s request he takes one last photo with the new camera. They won’t follow her all the way to the gate, so he gives the kids a little privacy to say goodbye. Fordyce watches out of the corner of his eye and when they seem readyt, he clears his throat. Erik walks her to the main door and after one more hug she hurries inside, wiping her eyes.

“It’ll be okay, kid,” he says as a deflated Erik joins him up front.

“I know. I’m going to visit her in a few months. She’ll visit me. I just wish we had the summer.”

“Yeah, I know. Are you sure you want to go straight to the office? We could grab breakfast somewhere if you want. Go to the park?”

“It doesn’t matter. Besides, doesn’t the what’s-it-called cafe on the ground floor open soon? Let’s just go there. I don’t feel like…” Erik turns his palms up, unable to say exactly what he doesn’t feel like.

“Gotcha. We’ll keep it low key. You have some thinking to do.”

***

Thank goodness for the 24-hour McDonald’s. The chain has fuelled an entire night of driving with coffee, fast food, and bathroom breaks, supplemented by Gideon’s pharmacy and natural adrenaline. It’s a good thing they didn’t stop too often, because here they are in the Financial District before six in the morning, and traffic is already picking up. Zabala is snoring away, having been ordered to sleep three hours ago. He needs to be ordered to eat, drink, even zip up his fly, much to Gideon’s annoyance, but at least he’s quiet. Julia is holding tough, wide awake and psyched for the day ahead. First they’ll stake out Redwing for research purposes, then infiltrate Sullivan and Cromwell to find out as much as they can about Andre Torres. Ideally, they’ll learn where he lives, although that might be impossible in this ant farm of a city. From her recce Julia knows the Ostrovsky boy will be staying with his guardian over the school break, but where? There are so many people named Torres in New York, even when you narrow it down to lawyers. Gideon is all in, though, and says that if necessary they will wait outside the law firm and follow him on foot. If they get the address they can always return later in the week for a personal meeting. Hell, it might be easier if they have to act from one of the many suburbs.

They’re parked illegally in front of Trinity Church with a good view of the Redwing building, ready to move if they’re spotted by the cops. It will be hours before all the offices open, but they have nothing else to do. Gideon wonders if they should find a hotel, maybe get a bit of sleep before they move their surveillance to Broad Street. His thoughts are interrupted by Julia whacking his arm with unnecessary force.

“Look, Gideon! The black car! At the light!”

He looks until he sees what she sees, then pulls into the loading zone in front of Redwing to get a better view of the glassed-in ground floor. In two minutes the sighting is confirmed.

“Good god. Well, change of plan, I think. You won’t turn coward on me, will you?”

Julia shakes her head and slides into the driver’s seat.

“This won’t take long, so stay ready. Wake up, Benny! We’re going in.”

***

Erik feels the lack of sleep catching up with him. He needs coffee; coffee, and a hot bagel sandwich. As the cafe owner opens the security gate, he sees one of the cooks setting out a tray of fresh muffins. Those would be good too. Maybe get extra for later. He and Fordyce aren’t alone. A handful of maintenance workers and other early birds are standing by to catch the best of the baking.

“Hey, Bill? I’ll order if you get a table. What would you like?”

No answer.

A scream.

A flash.

A shove.

Erik is on the ground. He hears the unmistakable sound of gunfire. There’s another flash and Fordyce is down. His Ruger P943 is on the floor. Erik scrambles for the gun. Just as he touches it, there’s a third flash. It hits him like God’s own boxing glove, a shocking, full body blow like nothing he’s felt before. He can’t speak. He can’t move.

Darkness.

Chapter Text

The first calls are to 9-1-1 and building security. Bill Fordyce comes to before the police and ambulance arrive, but he’s groggy, slurring his words. The security guards won’t let him stand but they can’t stop him from using his mobile to call Assiz Hassan. Hassan calls Doris Huttering and Andre Torres. Doris calls Malcolm, Andre calls the Wattell home. The calls spread the alarm, mapping out a raw nerve from Buffalo to Melville and beyond.

***

However long he’s been out has been long enough for Erik’s captors to tie him hand and foot and tape his mouth shut. Even before the grogginess clears he can tell this is an amateur job. His wrists are tied in front, almost swaddled in paracord, as are his ankles. Apparently they think more rope equals more security. They haven’t blindfolded him, which could mean they’re going to kill him, or they don’t think identification is an issue. Of course, if they’d wanted to kill him they could have done so already. After listening for ten minutes he learns that the driver is Julia and the front passenger is Gideon. They’re both English, god help him. The Golden Mu. It has to be. He’s lying on the plastic floor of a van beside a man in his late twenties who looks like a walking corpse: red eyes, waxy, yellowish skin, irregular black stubble. His head is turned towards Erik but he isn’t really looking. His eyes dart like a dreamer’s. So they’ve actually managed to manufacture some version of the telecephaloscope. Dammit.

They’re going north, judging by the light. His bit of deduction is rendered moot when Gideon tells Julia to turn on to interstate 78, which will turn into 139. They’re going to New Jersey, or at least through New Jersey. That means tolls which could be an opportunity. They’ll have to stop for at least one break if they’re going beyond that. Meanwhile, he can do his best to leave a trail. The moisture of his breath has already lifted the tape slightly. Erik pushes it until it hangs like a curtain over his upper lip. He pulls at his wrist ties with his teeth until his gift from Maribella is out of the tangle. A little more manoeuvring and he’s loosened the catch. He hides the bracelet under the rubber floor mat and glances at the corpse man. He’s still staring. He’s had a clear view of everything Erik has done, but either it hasn’t registered, or he’s unable to communicate. Interesting. Erik continues to work away at the paracord, looking for the outermost layer. He just has to get one loop loose, and the rest will be easy.

***

If she opens her mouth she will scream, so Maddy Wattell clenches and unclenches her hands instead. Soon the police will arrive. They want to ask questions. They need to record incoming calls.

“This is about money,” Marcus says with barely a tremor. “I’m positive. Redwing will pay and they’ll let him go. They have no reason to hurt him.”

Maddy rests her head in her hands. Her scalp feels tight, like it’s been stitched down.

“We’ll get him back. I promise you.” He wraps his arms around her and presses his cheek against her temple. As helpless as Marcus is at the moment, his confidence offers a sliver of comfort. Maddy holds on to him and does not scream.

***

They decide that Julia will drive until they get out of this wretched traffic. She’s good at the wheel and it’s not like they’ll find a discreet place to switch any time soon. Gideon has dark glasses and a cap to pull down over his face, but he still doesn’t care for the long wait at toll stations where even traffic leaving the city is fairly heavy. When they approach the Holland Tunnel he tells Zabala to shove over and sits on the floor of the van. The kid is facing the wall, pouting or sleeping, or maybe too scared to move. Julia is wearing her own dark glasses and has cash ready.

Just as she hands it over there’s a huge clatter of kicking and yelling from the back.

“Settle down back there,” she calls backwards. She smiles tightly at the woman in the booth. “Kids, you know.”

The attendant may know, but she doesn’t care. As they pull away Gideon punches Erik twice in the ribs to settle him down, then presses the tape back over his mouth.

“Benny, hold him tight. I need more tape.”

The zombie man has a grip of iron. Erik fights him reflexively and pointlessly, and gets another punch in the ribs for his trouble.

“Julia, I’m going to have to stay back here with the brat, at least until we can change places.”

“I’m afraid so. And if Erik is naughty with me I’ll have to knock him out with the Mega cosh, and that would be very unpleasant. You don’t want that, Erik. We’re your friends. You’ll realize that soon enough, but meanwhile we need you to be quiet and cooperative. We don’t want to get rough with you so don’t make it necessary, all right, sweetie?”

Erik doesn’t answer, of course. Mega cosh? That must be what they’re calling the light weapon that knocked him out. He wonders if Fordyce is okay and if there will be long-lasting effects of the blast. Most of all he wonders what kind of unhinged outfit he’s gotten mixed up with this time.

***

Redwing’s main headquarters could not be more different from Parthenon. Blake’s first thought is to wonder how anyone managed to pull an unwilling teenager out of the financial district of New York on a work day.

“Bustling place,” Phillip says, echoing his thoughts as they hurry across the street.

There are two state police officers and three security guards on the ground floor, but otherwise nothing remarkable. The show must go on is true for business as well, apparently. They’re escorted to the fifth floor board room which has been converted into a war room.

A curly-haired giant of a man introduces himself as Malcolm Browning and indicates two empty chairs. His demeanour is surprisingly friendly under the circumstances. Blake doesn’t take it at face value.

“I’ll introduce you to the others when they’re free. I want you to take a look at the security tape and see if anything stands out to you.”

“Of course. When did this happen?”

“A few minutes before six this morning. The restaurant on the ground floor was just opening. They came in, knocked out the security guard, then the kid. Picked him up like he was nothing and fled the scene.”

A trim man in his thirties interrupts. “Odd how they knew where he’d be there when hardly anyone was around. Odd that some English cult is targeting him at all.”

“What are you getting at? Mortimer asks. This man is as hostile as Browning is welcoming.

“Right now I’m concerned with finding my ward and bringing him back safe, but when he’s home I’d like to know who painted a target on his back.”

“They’re here to help, Andre,” Browning says. “Mr. Torres here is the boy’s legal guardian and lawyer, and a friend of the family. Naturally he’s upset.”

“Naturally,” says Blake. “Anyone would be. And Mr. Browning is right: we’re here to help. And it may be that our investigation has nothing to do with this kidnapping. It could be an unlikely coincidence.”

Torres scoffs audibly and walks around the room radiating nervous energy. There are state police and another F.B.I. agent in the room as well as two people Blake recognizes from his research into Redwing. Doris Huttering and Assiz Hasan are on a conference call. Mortimer recognizes them as well, and realizes they’re talking to Michael Wattell’s mother and father. Good god, but they must be frightened by all of this. Whatever Erik may be, he’s a child to them.

Browning cues up the security tape for viewing and they’re joined by one of the uniformed police officers. The scene is quiet, just a few customers waiting for the restaurant to open. A large man with a shaved head and a thin, dark-haired young man enter from the garage entrance. The camera doesn’t capture faces well, but this is obviously Erik and the security guard, Bill Fordyce. The kid is holding a book and walking towards the cafe. Fordyce is scanning the room. Two men in balaclava ski masks enter from the main entrance, one carrying something that looks like a prop from a low budget space opera. He raises the weapon and fires a blast of light. The bystanders react, some screaming, some running away, some frozen. Fordyce shoves the kid to the ground and aims his sidearm. The shorter of the two kidnappers steps forward, stops dead for a second, then continues.

“Pause, please,” says Blake.

“You saw it too.” Browning rewinds the tape. They watch again.

“That shot landed.” Mortimer is horrified. He hasn’t seen a man shrug off gunfire since 1954. “There’s no bullet proofing that can account for that.”

“No, there isn’t,” Browning says. “He hardly flinched Might as well have tossed a badminton bird at his chest.”

They watch as the lead kidnapper fires his weapon at Fordyce, who collapses instantly. Erik twists to grab the gun, but another shot from the light weapon puts him down. The man who deflected the bullet scoops him up over his shoulder like a sack of laundry and sprints for the door. The whole thing takes less than two minutes.

“Your boy reached for the gun. Does he know how to use one?” Blake asks.

“Yeah, I think his dad taught him, or had someone teach him.”

“Erik and his foster mother go target shooting regularly,” Torres adds. “He’s proficient, I understand.”

“Of course he is. Too bad he wasn’t a second quicker,” Malcolm says with a grim smile. “Now we’ve made copies of all the witness statements for you to review, but I can tell you now that at least two of them swore up and down that the leader had a British accent. He yelled directions at the other fella, so there goes your coincidence wouldn’t you say? Now that one is interesting. I’ve done some reading up, but I want to hear from a physicist. Do you have any insight into a technology that might let a man bounce a bullet off his chest and pick up 150 pounds of uncooperative human being like that?”

“I do, and I’d be glad to explain what I can, but I’m going to ask you to keep an open mind,” says Mortimer. “What I’m about to tell you may sound mad, but it’s backed by evidence.”

Browning and Torres look at each other. The latter shrugs. “We’re listening. Nothing else we can do right now anyway.”

They sit down with Phillip while Blake reads through the witness statements. Mortimer picks up a pen and rips off several sheets of blank looseleaf from a pad. “We begin with the theory that each human being emits a specific frequency that normally lies dormant and harmless…”

***

Jim Clark gets to the Wattell house early enough to open the door to Agent Walker and investigators from the state police. He makes himself useful, fixing coffee and reassuring Marcus and Maddy as best he can. So much of what the police do is maddeningly slow but necessary. They want clear pictures of Erik, fingerprints, access to the phones. They have so many questions about Erik’s habits, friends, family, interests, the trip to New York, every aspect of his life. The questions are repetitive and often seem pointless, but Maddy and Marcus do their best to answer, trying to think of new information each time.

Clark waits patiently for his turn. Walker hasn’t mentioned Blake and Mortimer, so he’s surprised when Clark says that Redwing warned him about possible threats from England. The boy’s father had a grudge there that went back decades, but the details are unclear.

Walker asks them to look at photographs. Neither Marcus nor Maddy know any of the people, but Clark is struck by a professional shot of a young woman in a cadet blue business suit.

“This one. This could be the woman I saw at the play. She was tall, maybe five seven. Her hair had a reddish tint that doesn’t show up in this photo, though. Looked natural.”

With an investigator’s eye for detail, Clark recalls everything he remembers from the night of the school play. The woman had drawn his attention by seeming to lurk around Erik’s family. She’d joined another group but he’s almost certain she’d left alone in a blue Honda Prelude, late model. He hadn’t been able to catch the license plate, but he’d noticed a similar car in the neighbourhood with plates that started with KE, or perhaps KB. It could be a coincidence, but it’s at least something to follow.

“What the hell do these people want with Erik?” Marcus asks Walker. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“No, it doesn’t to you or me, but these people are a cult. They’ve invented their own reality and Erik might be part of it. We don’t know that it’s them yet, though.”

“Oh, my god. The wicker man.” Maddy’s voice is barely audible.

“No, ma’am. I know what you’re thinking, but you’ve got to turn that around. If he was, in fact, abducted by this group, they’ll want to keep him alive and unhurt. He’s part of a bigger plan. They think they need him and that buys us time. We have every reason to look forward to a positive outcome. You believe me?”

Maddy closes her eyes and nods, willing her author’s imagination to stay on track. Her protagonists get themselves out of danger all the time, and Erik is as resilient and smart as any of them. He’ll make it through.

***

In between reading witness reports Blake keeps an eye on what he thinks of as the Redwing Principals. Hassan and Huttering have been in and out of the war room all day, juggling business calls while dealing with the police. Browning is watchful, hyper attentive. If he gets within range of the people who took Erik they will die screaming, Blake would bet on it. If Torres gets to them they will be hounded to the end of their days, but through the law. It’s odd that the lawyer is taking this so personally, but perhaps there is more to their relationship than business.

The witness reports are sketchy. The kidnapping was over in a moment and the shock was considerable. Two things stand out: the men who abducted Erik were inexorable, invincible, and the weapon looked like a toy. The getaway vehicle was a white van, a Ford or a Chevy, but nobody got a good look at the plates. There were no markings on the vehicle, but otherwise it looked like one of thousands used for deliveries all over the city. These vans are commonly rented by people needing to move or pick up furniture. The police have put the word to the major car rental companies, but it’s a long shot.

Hassan is back in his office for now, but Huttering enters the board room with news. Bill Fordyce is still in the hospital and will be until he’s had a full neurological workup, but he insists he’s fine.

“I told him to stay there until the doctors clear him. They took his statement and should have already faxed it over.”

Detective Prine of the NYPD waves the paper in question. “He didn’t add much, but I’ve just had word from Buffalo. A friend of the family has identified Julia Grenfell. It looks like she was stalking the victim weeks ago.”

Huttering touches the jewelled Damascene sword at her collar. “That bitch had better hope the cops find her first.” She leaves abruptly, probably to call her favourite assassin, judging by her expression.

***

“Wait! Wait, I have a better idea. Pull up right here, by the bench.”

Gideon does so. The street is quiet except for a few cars and a shabby man on the bench outside a public library. He’s slouched over, arms folded, a big plastic bag full of cans by his side.

“Don’t let the boy move a muscle, Benny. You understand?"

Benny grabs the prisoner hard enough to make him flinch. Julia jumps out lightly, tosses a bundle on the bench, and is back in the van in a second.

“All, right, Julia, what was that all about?”

“It’s a diversion, better than tossing the coat in a bin. The homeless gentleman will wander all over the place with it, and if somehow they find it, they’ll blame him.”

“All right, good thinking. Phone and wallet?”

“In the pockets. There won’t be any prints.”

“Excellent. Jesus, four more hours. Let’s try to make it to Binghamton without a break. I want to get out of sight. This is making me antsy.”

“You’re just tired. Everything is going perfectly, Gideon. The universe is looking out for us.”

“Hmm. Terrific. How about asking the universe for light traffic and decent takeaway. And make that brat keep still.”

Julia looks back to see their precious prisoner attempting to pull away from Zabala. He might as well fight an oak tree. “What did I say about cooperating, sweetie? Stay still or you’ll hurt yourself. There, see? Benny, let go of him but grab him if he moves again. Understand? You two behave yourselves and everything will be fine.”

The smile she gives Erik brings back memories he’s been trying to bury for decades. Another woman with a smile just like that would have cheerfully scrambled his brain with the Mega Wave. He can picture her now, head tilted in parody of charm, sugared words masking poison. Julia doesn’t resemble Lady Rowena physically, but she’s of the sisterhood.

***

This is the best catered investigation centre Blake has ever seen. A word from Hassan to his assistant has resulted in a steady supply of coffee and snacks, and a hot lunch at noon. The number of “guests” to be fed has decreased, however, as most of the investigators return to their offices. A few remain to monitor the phone taps and convey information, of course, but even Blake and Mortimer have done all they can for now. Torres is pacing again, his frustration taking its toll.

Mortimer is examining a still shot of the light weapon used in the kidnapping. It’s a crude, oversized Frankenstein’s monster of household appliances. He’d love to get a look at the core of the thing, though. Maybe when they find Erik he’ll have a chance to take it apart. It would be a shame if this technology were to get out into the wild, but to study it! That would be interesting.

“Andre! I’m on the blower with William in Syracuse. He has an idea.”

It doesn’t matter who Browning is talking to, everyone listens.

“He needs Erik’s mobile number. Apparently he has something that might be able to track the phone, at least until the battery dies.”

Andre is at his side in an instant, and while he talks to the mysterious William, Blake approaches Browning. He, too, has been on the phone all day, most recently with his F.B.I. contact.

“Walker talked to Candice Cummings and her son. They’re the ones Erik drove down with. Of course, they’ve both promised to keep the investigation confidential, but the son is sixteen. I wouldn’t be surprised if rumours got out.”

“Damn it all. And I bet they didn’t have anything to tell us.”

“Nothing. Nobody followed them as far as they knew. No sightings of a white van. We don’t know how the kidnappers knew Erik would be here this morning.”

“Maybe they didn’t. The whole thing has a seat-of-the-pants kind of feeling.”

***

It’s still early in the afternoon when they arrive home. Gideon drives past the main house, as far as he can get before the lane turns to muck. It’s been a long, difficult drive. Aside from the brief pause when Julia ditched the jacket they’d only stopped once, at a rest stop near Scranton. That’s when Julia remembered the plates. They’d taped Zabala’s plates over the van’s to mislead pursuers; it would have been a waste of effort if they’d kept them on the whole way. The brat had made another pointless escape attempt when they’d graciously allowed him a pee break, apparently being too thick to realize he cannot win when they have Benny Pig.

Pinker comes out of the lab to meet them. He glares at their prize suspiciously, not at all impressed.

“This is him? This is what you took my subject all the way to New York for”

“Yes, Kevin,” says Julia. “This is Subject Three. I think he’ll end up being the best one.”

“Not yet he won’t. I need to tinker with the communication interface. You’ll have to keep him in storage until I’m ready. And Zabala needs a recharge.”

“Keep your hair on, Pinker. We need him to get the boy locked up safe. You don’t expect Julia and me to carry him in there, do you?”

“Hmph. No, but don’t overstrain him. And I want to know everything, exactly how he did.”

“Certainly, Kevin, but later, all right? We’ll talk after lunch. We’re exhausted and famished. You might have a bit of appreciation for our hard work, you know. We brought you a fancy new toy to play with.”

“You will be lucky to die in prison, all of you,” Erik says. He’s managed to move the tape enough to talk. Julia glares at him, then rips the tape off completely in a quick, brutal motion.

“I’m about sick of you moaning about things you don’t understand! Listen, young man! If you want to eat, or sleep, or enjoy any aspect of civilization you’ll watch your manners!”

Erik ignores her. He’s a rumpled mess, bound hand and foot and helpless in Zabala’s grasp, but his expression is pure contempt.

“Look at you,” he says to Gideon. “You wore loafers to an abduction. You won’t last a day at Fort Dix.”

“Shut up!” Gideon roars. He backhands Erik across the face, shocking even Julia.

“Gideon! Please! We’re all tired. Have Benny put the boy away and we’ll rest. You’re above this.”

Gideon shakes her off, still furious. The boy is smirking at him, even as a drop of blood forms on his lip. Little bastard. We’ll see how cute he is after Pinker puts him through the machine.

***

Browning is going to Syracuse in the morning. William Hunter-Adams has offered a technological lifeline, and anything is better than stewing in the New York office waiting for something to happen. Torres will join him. They’ll be flying out at sunrise. Blake and Mortimer are welcome to join them or not.

They will be going to Syracuse, Blake says, but the Buffalo F.B.I. office has already arranged transportation and lodging. Special Agent Walker will meet them there. The consensus is that while the kidnappers could have taken the boy anywhere, they seemed to have headed north. Bulletins have been put out to border crossings and airports in case they plan to take Erik to Canada, or, god forbid, smuggle him to England. Trying to take him that far would be insanely dangerous, but these people seem prone to insanely dangerous actions.

Mortimer is curious about the Syracuse lab, but he doubts very much that he’ll have a chance to see much of it. The Redwing people have been pleasant - even Torres is cooly polite at this point - but they’re not about to let some strange physicist play in their sandbox. He gets up to stretch and notices a book sitting on a file cabinet beside a briefcase: Master and Commander. He’s heard of this series but has yet to get into it. Idly, he opens the cover to see if there’s a summary and finds an inscription instead: To Erik, from Auntie Mari and Uncle Andre.

“It’s a birthday present.” Torres holds his hand out for the book, which Mortimer hands over carefully “He won’t turn sixteen until Sunday, but we wanted to give it to him early. He dropped it when they shot him with that thing.”

“I’m very sorry. You’ll be able to give it back to him in person, soon, I’m sure of it.” Mortimer says. “These are the best investigators you’ll find. And from what I hear, Erik won’t make it easy for the kidnappers.”

Torres almost smiles. “He won’t. And I hope to hell you’re right about the investigation. I’m not a child, professor. I know the first twenty-four hours are crucial.”

***

There’s a protocol for being captured. You have to resist, you have to make it difficult for your captors, you have to look for opportunities and take them, and you have to survive. So far Erik has made two attempts to escape and the only consequences have been a few bruises and scrapes and a fat lip. They don’t want to actually damage him, at least not yet. That’s something to hold on to. By now the cops and every force Redwing can muster will be looking for him. That’s another thing. His family is safe, blessing number three. From what he’s overheard it seems these Golden Mu idiots were planning to kidnap him from Andre’s house. If that didn’t work they would have come to the Wattells. Instead they lucked into nabbing him at Redwing, and nobody’s been killed, not yet. He has to focus on his assets, and not on the terror that keeps bubbling up. Feel, it, acknowledge, it let it go, focus on action.

They want to paralyze you with despair, he tells himself. That’s why they keep calling you “Subject Three” or “sweetie,” anything but your name. That’s why you’re locked in this filthy, broken down cottage. That’s why you’ve eaten nothing all day but peanut butter on a hamburger bun and a bottle of tepid water. They want to break you down. Don’t let them.

Erik’s captors are elsewhere. He can’t move much but he can look around. The windows of the cottage are small and high, but nothing he couldn’t reach. There’s no heat, water, or power. He has a bucket for sanitary purposes, but to reach it he has to pull the chain as far as it can reach. It’s just another petty humiliation designed to break his spirit, or maybe they’re just too stupid to plan a proper jail cell. Take the chain, for example. It’s a thick, heavy chain more useful for pulling stumps than holding a person. It’s wrapped awkwardly around one ankle and fastened with a padlock. The other end is woven in and out of the bed frame and fastened with an even bigger padlock. The frame itself is heavy and old, but not particularly sound. He can feel the springs through the sleeping bag and foam mattress and it squeaks and groans with every movement. The thing is riddled with rust and metal fatigue and some of the springs have already busted loose.

They must have used the padlocks to intimidate him, or perhaps they think that bigger means stronger. Stupid. He’s scoured the room and hasn’t found any hair pins or paper clips, but the bed frame is full of thin strips of metal. He just needs to pry a couple loose, bend them into tools, pick the lock, and get out. The woman said they’re in the middle of nowhere, but they were on paved roads until the last ten minutes of the drive. There’s probably a neighbour close by, maybe even a town. Judging by the angle of the shadows, there’s still a few hours of daylight left. Maybe he can get home tonight. Don’t set a deadline, though, just focus. Think about the reward when the mission is accomplished.

***

Andre gets home as quickly as he can, but it’s dark when he opens the front door; dark outside and in. Maribella is on the couch with Miranda, holding the drowsy little girl close as the news crackles on the television.

“There’s a plate made up in the fridge. You can nuke it.” Her eyes are red and swollen.

“Thanks, babe.” He encircles her and the baby and kisses them both. “I’m going to Syracuse tomorrow. Redwing is staging their investigation from the lab. They have surveillance equipment, high tech stuff. I don’t know.”

“Good. They’re experts on this kind of thing, right? They’ll have tools even the cops don’t have.”
“That’s what they tell me. I don’t know how useful I’ll be, but I have to be there.”

“I know. Get some food. You need to keep your strength up.”

“I will. He’s a tough kid, Mari. He’s smart. He’ll be working his ass off to get free, just like we’re working to find him.”

“I know.” A tear runs down her face and falls to her shirt before she can wipe it away. “He must be so scared though. Poor baby. My god, we have to find him.”

“We will sweetheart. We will. He has an army behind him.”

Chapter Text

When Gilly was four years old she went missing. Her parents searched the whole house and garden and were close to panic when they found her, sound asleep, within a buffet in the little-used reception room. She’d insisted that she hadn’t heard them calling at all, and had only hidden to see the fairies dancing. Her parents used to tell this story, and they used to call the parties held in that room “fairy dances.” That was a long time ago, however, and the only aspect that’s still true is that Gilly is a sound and ready sleeper. She falls asleep somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean shortly before midnight GMT, and stays asleep until they land at Dulles. The flight to Albany is shorter, but she nods off then too, arriving fairly rested if a bit addled with the time change.

Gilly feels a bit like an international woman of mystery as picks up her little red Mazda hatchback at one of the few companies that accepts customers under 25 years old. She’s never driven on the right hand side before, but she soon gets the hang of it. Thank goodness there isn’t much traffic at this hour. She checks into the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport in a state of high excitement. To think that later this day she’ll be reunited with Julia and Gideon. And Kevin, of course. She mustn’t forget him, especially since it was his invitation. She’s so keyed up that she briefly considers checking out and driving on to Lyons right away, but that seems silly. Julia is an early riser but she knows that Gideon rarely rises before ten. Better clean up, rest, watch a little television. Gilly goes through her full skin care routine, brushes her teeth, and starts watching Metropolis on some old movie channel. It’s not a great print and she’s not really interested in silent film. She’s soon sound asleep again, dreaming of the road ahead.

***

The cottage is a picturesque ruin by day, but by night it’s just cold and dark and miserable. Erik’s escape effort is hampered by the early sunset and remote location. This is a new moon night and there are no street lights for miles. Before long the outside temperature dips well below freezing and he’s forced to work from inside the sleeping bag. Several hours of darkness later and his hands are too cold and clumsy to bend and file metal, so he sleeps for a time.

When he wakes there’s a faint light from the window. It must be around 6 a.m., which means he has to work quickly. The picks hammered and bent with his boot are too big for the ankle lock, but he gets them into the bigger lock on the bed frame. Erik holds his breath as he shifts the pins. The last thing he needs is for this brittle metal to plug the whole mechanism. There. He straightens the pins with the second pick and the shank pops. He untangles the chain from the frame and winds it up. He’ll have to carry it with him.

The floorboards creak and bow when he reaches what used to be the kitchen. There’s nothing in there now except for an old wood stove that’s missing the door and burners. Erik opens the door slowly and surveys the scene. It’s still fairly dark. There’s a long, ugly building that’s obviously the main house on this property. If they were awake he’d see a light. He jumps down all four stairs at once and quickly makes his way to the back of the cottage. There’s nothing but a big barn and dry fields ahead. Erik sniffs the air. Smoke, no question, but from a distance. Perhaps some farmer is getting an early start burning brush or firing up a stove to cook breakfast. With luck whoever it is won’t reach for a gun when they see a battered young man hauling twenty feet of chain.

Erik walks towards the smoke smell as quickly as he can. No point rushing into a sprained ankle or worse. Luckily the fields are flat, and once he gets past that windbreak of trees up ahead he should be able to see more. It’s bloody freezing but the sun is coming up, so Erik breaks into a sustainable jog to warm up.

Then he hears the shouting. Without looking back Erik runs full out towards the trees. Footsteps approach with terrifying speed. Erik can see the plume of smoke now, and maybe a building. A grey box, anyway. Too far away. A violent shock and he’s on the ground, flat on his face. Erik struggles as Benny the walking corpse carries him back to the Golden Mu, arms pinned at his sides. His kicks don’t connect, or rather, he connects with a force field instead of an ankle or shin. Corpse man is smaller than Erik but his grip is unbreakable. It’s like fighting a machine.

There’s a reception committee waiting. Pinker is fully dressed, although he looks like he slept in his clothes. Julia and Gideon are wearing coats over pyjamas, gaudy paisley pyjamas in Gideon’s case. Apparently he was spotted when Pinker got up to pee. So the creepy little scientist is living in that barn with the zombie? Bad luck. Gideon gets as close as he can to Erik while remaining out of kicking range. “You just lost the privilege of sleeping off the ground, laddy. Bring him inside!” He picks up the free end of the chain and follows as Zombie hauls Erik back to the cottage, followed by Julia and Pinker. Julia kneels by the bed frame and picks up some of the loose springs.

“He picked the lock, Gideon. We can’t let him anywhere near anything metal. We’ll have to go into town and get better locks, or ropes. Or both, I suppose.”

Gideon loops the loose end of the chain around the pedestal sink. The hardware is missing but it’s otherwise intact. He fastens the padlock and quickly gets out of reach of the chain.

“Let him go, Benny.”

Zabala does so, and as Gideon clearly expects Erik to lunge or rave, he instead folds his arms.

“You realize that hundreds of people are looking for me right now, don’t you? Your choice is to let me go, or deal with armed agents of U.S. law enforcement. Maybe think about that.”

Julia sighs in exasperation. “Erik, you may not be capable of understanding this in your unenlightened condition, but this is for your own good.” She kicks at the chain and turns to Gideon. “We need to rethink security until Erik is brought around. When will that be, Pinker?”

“I don’t know. Three or four days, maybe. Sooner if I can get some work done without all these interruptions.”

“We’ll have to watch him. Pinker, have Benny here sit with him until we can get sorted. You can spare your precious guinea pig for a few hours. Oh, and Benny. Take off the boy’s boots.”

Gideon grins as Benny yanks Erik’s desert boots off one at a time, forcing Erik to grab the wall for support.

“Maybe I’ll give you a chance to earn them back with good behaviour.” He walks away, swinging the boots by their laces, followed by Pinker and Julia. Benny remains behind, blank, glassy eyes tuned to Erik’s every move.

***

She knows it’s childish, but Gilly gets a little thrill out of using all hotel toiletries, even though they smell oddly of eucalyptus. This is the first time she’s stayed in a hotel room by herself without family or friends. It’s a little lonely, but exciting. Recalling what she’d read in the travel guide, she leaves a tip on the dresser and goes downstairs to check out. The clerk gives her a map and draws the quickest route to Lyons. He’s so friendly Gilly wonders if he’s flirting, then scolds herself inwardly for being so vain. The clerk suggests a few places she might like to visit on the road, and says he hopes she’ll stop by again on her way home.

Since the hotel restaurant looks rather depressing and her body clock is still messed up, Gilly hits the road with a full water bottle and her map on the passenger seat. It’s supposed to take three hours to get to Lyons, but she’s in no hurry. She pulls over in Schenectady and finds a cheerful diner where she orders a breakfast burrito and coffee, the most American items on the menu. The server compliments her accent and wraps up half the burrito for later. Everyone has been so nice since she touched down. Gilly takes this as a good omen. She’ll have to get flowers or something for her friends to celebrate her arrival. Maybe they’ll all go out to dinner.

***

Benny the Zombie blinks regularly, but not in reaction to specific stimuli. Erik knows this because he’s waved his hands in front of the zombie man’s face several times. Tentatively, he reaches over and pokes Benny’s arm. No reaction. He walks towards the door and feels a sharp tug on the chain. Benny’s obliviousness has limits. Damn.

Erik hears heavy footsteps approaching, so he leans against the wall casually, as if he were waiting for a friend. It’s Gideon, of course. He’s got the Mega Cosh and his expression makes Erik’s skin crawl. He tosses a black bundle to Erik. It’s a shirt with a bright yellow M on the chest. No. Absolutely no. Not again.

“Put it on.”

Erik doesn’t move. “No thanks. I prefer natural fabrics.”

Gideon raises the Mega Cosh and aims. “I wonder what would happen if I shot this at your head.”

“You’d probably kill me, and then you’ll have committed a whole bunch of federal crimes for nothing.”

“Good point. Benny, rip his shirt off.”

Before Erik can argue Benny has torn his shirt in half at the collar. It comes off in four pieces in a way that strikes Gideon as highly comical.

“Now put on your nice new shirt before I get angry. Or I’ll have Benny put it on you.”

Erik complies, choosing the lesser indignity. “There, happy? I can see you have a real flair for graphic design. Maybe consider it as a career. Crime clearly isn’t your forté.” Erik laces his comments with as much contempt as he can muster, certainly more than Gideon has experienced in his cosseted life. It hits home, but Erik’s satisfaction doesn’t last.

“You’ll thank me soon enough, on your knees, I dare say. You’re about to get a good, sharp lesson in manners,” Gideon says. He smirks and takes the shreds of denim from Benny. “I’ll burn these in Pinker’s forge. This is just the first of many improvements, my boy.”

***

Jim Clark drives Maddy and Marcus to Niagara International early Tuesday morning. He will look after Buddy and the house, they’re not to worry about a thing. They could drive to Syracuse in three hours, but Doris Huttering insisted on flying them out and they’d accepted without hesitation, dreading the idea of even a short drive under these circumstances. Redwing has arranged for a room at the Jefferson Clinton Suites, close to both the lab and the Syracuse F.B.I. office. Doris and Assiz will stay in New York, of course. There’s nothing they can do and someone has to run the business. To make up for their inaction they’ve opened the coffers to the Wattells. Anything they need will be furnished by Redwing. Assiz makes a point of adding that this goes for when they find Erik as well, which they surely will.

***

The flight to Syracuse from New York is ninety minutes of bumpy air, the kind Phillip hates the most. Blake squeezes his hand discreetly. They’ll be on the ground again soon, don’t worry. The plan is to check in at the Marriott near Armory Square, meet Walker at the F.B.I. office, then perhaps a visit to the Redwing lab. Like Mortimer, Blake is very interested in the lab, although not for scientific reasons. He takes it for granted that Redwing is up to no good - they are a defence company, after all - but what specific flavour of no good? With luck he’ll have a chance to poke around, ask a few questions, see what “Ostrovsky” was up to in his old age.

***

Malcolm Browning and Andre choose to drive rather than fly. They’re on Interstate 80 before the sun rises. Malcolm has a lead foot but he’s careful to avoid hot spots for cops. They don’t have time to be pulled over for speeding, especially since Malcolm has a sidearm. Andre confesses that he feels useless. He can’t shoot and hasn’t thrown a punch since fifth grade. His investigative skills are focussed on corporate law, not missing persons or any kind of crime.

“You know Erik better than any of us,” Malcolm counters. “That will come in handy, you’ll see. Besides, he’ll want you to be there when we find him.”

‘When. Right.”

***

Julia has clearly taken her time getting ready before starting her watch at the cottage. Her hair is in a sleek ponytail and she’s wearing her wine-coloured trench over crisp dark jeans and a white turtleneck. Her elegance is marred only slightly by the Mega Cosh in her right hand and a canvas shopping bag in her left.

“Benny, take the metal part of the bed outside, and break it to pieces.” Benny stares at her pointing finger for a moment, then moves to obey. He picks up the steel bed frame in one hands and does as he’s told. Julia smiles slightly at the sound of breaking and twisting metal. Erik is not amused. He’d wasted too much time last night trying to break the body of the frame only to find it welded solid, its weakness confined to the springs. He has a fleeting not-quite-memory of bending a fireplace poker in half under the influence of the Mega Wave, but he shakes it off.

“You can’t be trusted with a bed, but perhaps you’ll earn another foam mattress with good behaviour,” Julia says when the crashing dies down. She pulls a mat out of the bag and places it on the floor, out of Erik’s reach. She sits down in the lotus position, quite comfortably. “We’re not your enemies, Erik. I’m actually very fond of you and Gideon wants what’s best for you too, even if he’s a little too busy to show it right now.”

“Right. That’s why I’m half frozen and chained to a sink. Friendship. Beneficence.”

“It is a bit chilly, but you have a new shirt from Gideon, and the sleeping bag is rated for the coldest temperatures. I made sure of that. Oh, and look, I brought you breakfast!” Julia tosses a bag over to the prisoner. It’s two more buns with peanut butter and another bottle of water.

“Very creative.”

“Neither one of us is much of a cook, I admit,” Julia concedes breezily. “And I wasn’t about to make you anything with animal products. This is as much a purification process as a scientific experiment.”

Erik raises one eyebrow. He wants her to talk, and it’s not as if he could say anything while choking down the horrid sandwich.

“I can see your skepticism, and I don’t blame you, but you’re part of something much bigger. We all are. This is something the universe has determined must be completed.”

“By you?”

“We have been granted that privilege, yes. Years of study and discipline have led to this moment. I don’t expect you to understand it now, but if you like I can read to you from the book of Mu when I next visit. That might help you see your part in this. You’re in a unique position to understand your divine purpose before you undergo the, well, enhancement and transformation. Your father never had that chance.”

“My father?”

“Yes, your father, The Original Subject. He was part of this too, a long, long time ago, before you were born. I’ll show you when I bring the Book of Mu. He had a secret life before he became Ivan Ostrovsky, and it’s clear that his bloodline runs true in you. It will all be clear to you soon.”

Erik picks up the other sandwich and starts chewing, mostly to keep from yelling at her. Incredible. This woman is, as Malcolm would say, crazier than a shithouse rat, and yet she’s intuited something fairly close to the truth. When he gets out of here he’s going to have to work on enhancing his history as Erik.

“Finish your breakfast and listen. I’m going to do a reading.”

Erik watches as she spreads a large silk handkerchief on the splintering floor. She shuffles her deck for an absurdly long time, then draws five cards which she arranges face down.

“I’ve focussed my thoughts on you, Erik. This is my gift to you. The first of many.”

She flips the first card. “This represents your past. Wands figure prominently in your makeup, you know. Every time I’ve considered you in a reading, wands have come up again and again, particularly your signature card. This represents drive, ambition, competition. Those are the forces from the past that have led you to this moment.”

Erik takes a slug of water which helps the last of the sandwich go down. His throat feels tight.

“Ah, look! Here you are, the Page of Wands. This is what I meant by signature card. You just keep coming up, no matter what question I ask. Upright the card represents freedom and exploration. You must try to stay upright in life. This is your present, and who you are. So far a very lucky hand.”

Julia turns the third card over. It looks like three women in robes making a toast with enormous gold goblets.

“Three of cups. Now that is interesting. This is the future position, and this card signifies friendship and community. It tells me that we are on the right track, Erik. You will come to join our family and in doing so find true happiness, a purpose above anything you have previously imagined.”

“I have a family. They’re looking for me right now.”

“Those people? Oh, Erik, how little you understand of life. Those people aren’t fit to raise you. They’ve corrupted you, and the longer you’re with them the worse off you’ll be. I only regret that your father had such a poor sense of fitness when it came to disposing of his greatest asset.” She tilts her head in a sympathetic gesture that makes Erik feel a little sick. Once again he’s reminded of Lady Rowena.

“There now. Four of pentacles, reversed. See how it’s turned around? The core reason for your present circumstances: greed, possessiveness.” Julia frowns slightly, momentarily puzzled. “This must be a reference to your so-called family. They took you in out of greed. You’re a possession to them, something to show off. You see?”

Erik says nothing. What would be the point?

“The final card represents your potential. Pay close attention to this one.” She turns the fifth card and utters a tiny gasp. “Oh, do you see, Erik? This is so fortuitous. The Devil, reversed! Upright this is not the best card in this position, but reversed it represents freedom, release, restoring control. Don’t you see? You’re in the right place. Through participation in the Great Work you will experience true freedom.”

Erik keeps his face very neutral. “It sounds very impressive, but I don’t know about your Great Work. You and Gideon don’t strike me as experienced in… this kind of thing. What makes you think we’re safe here? Every cop in the Eastern Seaboard will be looking for the white van.”

“Oh, we returned that yesterday. All safe and sound. ”

“And clean?”

Julia frowns slightly. “What do you mean? They clean them at the rental place. They have dozens of vans just like the one we used, and of course we were very careful.” She shakes her finger at him. “Erik, you’re not fooling me. I know you’re not fully on board with us, but you will be. Say, how would you like some brown rice and steamed vegetables for lunch? Doesn’t that sound good?”

“I would appreciate that. Do you think you can do something about the cold? There’s most of a wood stove over there. You could start a fire.”

“Oh, I don’t think I’d trust you with a fire just yet. Tell you what: I’ll be going into town soon and I’ll see if I can find a nice little space heater. We could run an extension from Pinker’s lab. And I’ll pick you up something to read.”

“Sure.”

Julia carefully packs her gear and stands. “I’ll see you soon, dear boy. Get some rest. You’ve been a little too active lately.”
She smoothes down her coat and hefts the Mega Cosh. “Benny! Get in here! You have to make sure Erik stays here, understand? And don’t let him break anything, or move anything.”

The Zombie Man resumes his vigil and Julia is on her way.

***

The Syracuse office of the FBI is snugged within a stately limestone office building with a landscaped courtyard. The first floor offices are cool and anonymously elegant but on the third floor, where Agent Walker is waiting for Blake and Mortimer, any attempt at decor has been abandoned. Instead there’s cork boards, white boards, industrial carpeting, and the familiar smells of burnt coffee, cleaning chemicals, and people who work long hours in small spaces.

Walker has a desk in what is normally a storage area. They sit together on folding metal chairs as he gives a rundown on the investigation so far. They’ve run out of people to interview for now, but they’re looking into bank and travel records. That’s taking more time than they’d like, but they’re making progress. They’ve alerted all the car rental companies in the region to keep an eye out for anyone returning a white van, but no word yet. He has a list of Parthenon properties which runs to the hundreds just in the northeast. It would be nice if they could narrow that down a bit.

“I could look it over to at least see what places are most suitable,” Phillip says.

“That would help. Blake, I’d like you to help me create a psychological profile of these nut jobs.”

“Of course. Where are the boy’s foster parents?”

“Probably at the Redwing lab by now. I’ll be there later myself. There’s this Hunter-Adams fellow who runs the lab, and he called me early this morning. He claims he traced the boy’s phone to East Stroudsburg, in Pennsylvania, but it’s gone dead. Crossing state lines repeatedly nudges this case firmly into our territory, incidentally. I’ve called the local police to alert them, but… how on the level is Redwing?”

Blake would like to know that himself. Rather than dwell on it, he tackles the profiles while Mortimer looks through the list of properties and makes notes in pencil. They manage to work for nearly thirty minutes before Walker’s mobile demands attention. He steps just outside the office door where the reception is better, but Blake and Mortimer can catch the gist of his conversation. There’s been a lead. Walker directs the caller to take Polaroid pictures of whatever they’ve found and fax them right away.

“Looks like they've found Erik’s coat. It was turned into the lost and found at the East Stroudsburg PD. Officer Frye is faxing me pictures this very minute.”

***

Excerpt from an interview with Kristoffer Knutson, March 19, 1996, conducted by Officer Mykayla Frye of the East Stroudsburg Police Department

 

Knutson: It was around 10 o’clock. I know because I was waiting for the library to open. I don’t like to crowd the door, because a lot of folks rush in. Don’t like being part of a mass of people.

 

Frye: So before ten?

 

Knutson: Or maybe just after. I may have nodded off a little. See, I woke up at five that day because I was leading a dawn expedition at Brodhead Creek Park.

 

Frye: This is something you do regularly?

 

Knutson: Every Tuesday and Sunday, weather permitting. We had a pretty good day, I remember. Saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker and a kestrel. Good count overall. I could get the exact figures for you if you like.

 

Frye: Maybe later. So you were sleeping, or relaxing, in front of the library, and a woman approached you.

 

Knutson: Right. She thought I was, well, a person who’d fallen on hard times. I was wearing my cycling clothes and had a big trash bag full of empties. That’s how I stay in shape. Tool around on the recumbent, picking up recyclables. The money goes to my birding fund. Not that I need it, with my pension and investments, but it keeps me busy.

 

Frye: You taught science at South, right? I think my sister was in your class.

 

Knutson: That’s right. Jasmine Frye, class of ’86. Nice girl, neat and careful.

 

Frye: She’s a curator now. So, the woman approached you.

 

Knutson: She did. Young woman, maybe your age. Threw a coat right on top of me without a word. Normally I would have corrected her error immediately, but I was perhaps a little out of it, and she got back in the vehicle so quickly! I didn’t have a chance.

 

Frye: Can you describe the vehicle?

 

Knutson: White van. I couldn’t tell you what brand or whatever. I don’t do cars. The recumbent and public transit are good enough for me. It was the kind people use to move. Just a regular white van with a big door on the passenger side. And no, I didn’t even think of checking the license plate.

 

Frye: Did you get a good look at the woman?

 

Knutson: Just for a second, but it was enough. Very striking. Tall. Are you interested in classic films? She looked like a young Myrna Loy, but dark hair. In fact, get yourself a copy of The Mask of Fu Manchu and look at the woman playing Fah Lo See, minus the inappropriate race makeup, of course. She looked just like that.

 

Frye: I will. What did you do next?

 

Knutson: I came straight here and turned it into the lost and found. Didn’t think to check the pockets. Figured that was your business, and, of course, I wanted to get back to the library. Maybe I should have checked, but it seemed wrong to go through someone else’s pockets, unofficial as I am. I forgot all about it until you called me.

 

Frye: You did the right thing by bringing it to us.

 

***

“Julia, as much as I’d love to babysit our little charge, it’s just impossible.”

“You expect me to handle him by myself? And he’s hardly little.”

“Use Benny! What’s the point in having a thrall if he won’t do the work? I have calls to make, and I absolutely have to go out tomorrow to do my church visits. I need to spread the word if we’re to have any kind of audience for Saturday.”

“Yes, I know, I know. I suppose you’re right. Even if Erik isn’t ready we can still do a tech demonstration, get Benny to do a few tricks. I need to rent some chairs, I suppose.Two dozen, you think?”

“Make it an even 30. And some food. Nothing elaborate. We’ll have to get Pinker to tidy up the lab. He’s turned into a bit of a bear’s den.”

“No surprise there. Perhaps I should get some party lights, a boom box, and… Gideon. There’s someone coming.”
She steps closer to the sitting room window. At the end of the lane that leads to the farmhouse a small red car approaches, sending up clouds of dust.

***

Having met three members of the Redwing leadership team, Phillip is a little disappointed when William Hunter-Adams turns out to be completely ordinary. He looks like the assistant manager in an electronics shop, remarkable only in being very young to be managing an entire research division. He can’t be more than 32, although he dresses like grandpa doing a bit of gardening. They’re not allowed in any of the labs for now, but the meeting room is theirs as long as they need it. The Wattells are there, looking desperate and exhausted. Phillip is tempted to explain his connection to Michael but thinks better of it. Now is not the time. The lawyer is more on edge than ever, as if ready to fly at the door at a word. Malcolm Browning is calm and steady, and very dangerous. Walker introduces them to Erik’s foster parents, and briefly explains their role in the investigation. Madeleine and Marcus murmur the standard pleasantries on autopilot. Blake tells them that he’s researched the kidnappers and they will be very careful to keep Erik alive and well. It seems to help a little.

Agent Walker asks everyone to sit, He has some pictures for them to look at. Madeleine Wattell gasps at the first one.

“That’s Erik’s. It’s almost new.” It’s a military style jacket, windproof with lots of pockets, dark green according to the attached note.

Erik’s library card and learner’s permit were found inside the wallet. Andre identifies the camera as the one Erik received for his birthday only days ago. The last picture is a small plastic zip bag of chocolate almonds. This one seems to bother Madeleine most of all. Why couldn’t they at least let him have his snack? None of this makes sense.

“These people think of themselves as master planners, but they’re in over their heads, Mrs. Wattell,” says Blake. “Leaving the identification in the wallet was their way of throwing us off track, but all they’ve done is narrow down our search area. As upsetting as this is, it’s a win for us.” His words seem to comfort the foster parents very slightly, so he goes on. “Would you say Erik is a resourceful boy?”

“He is,” says Marcus. “He likes to solve problems on his own. He looks for work-arounds.”
“He’ll have figured out by now that these people aren’t geniuses, and he’ll be looking for a way to reach us. Every law enforcement agency in eight states is on alert for a signal or call for help. I hope you can take heart from that.”

***

“Hiiiiiiiiiiiiii!”

“Gilly!”

“Oh, my god! It’s so great to see you again! Big hugs!”

“Gilly!”

“Help her with her bags, Gideon. My goodness! We had no idea you were coming.”

“I know! Kevin invited me and he really wanted it to be a surprise. I wanted to tell you but it was such a big deal to him. You’re not upset, are you?”

“Oh, no, of course not. It’s just such a shock. Surprise. You look lovely! Doesn’t she look lovely, Gideon?”

“Amazing.”

“We’d better get you inside. Here, let me get that bag.”

“I brought wine, and some flowers, and a few other things. I thought I’d make you all dinner tonight to celebrate!”

“How, sweet! Gideon, you should go have a word with Kevin. Let him know what’s happening.”

“Yeah, I’ll go do that. Julia will help you get settled in and I’ll just go and… do that thing. Back in a tick.”

***

Walker has his ear glued to his mobile yet again. He gestures to Andre to come over and keeps his voice low. “Mr. Torres, would you mind telling me again what Erik was wearing the day of the kidnapping?”

“Oh, god, I was half asleep. Jeans, the dark green jacket, boots, blue button-down, I think.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes. No! He always wears a black leather bracelet my wife gave him. It has a sterling silver clasp with a black and white evil eye for protection. You know what I mean?”

Walker nods and goes back to his call. After a minute he gets everyone’s attention. A bracelet matching the one worn by Erik has been found during a routine check at a U-Haul franchise in Auburn, New York.

“That’s not even an hour from here!” Marcus says.

“Exactly. The renter isn’t one of the Golden Mu people, but they likely used a fake ID, or they may have a stooge or a confederate. We’re looking into it right now.”

Blake looks at the map spread out on the board table. “This confirms my initial impression of the kidnappers. They’re in New York State, I’d swear to it. The Grenfell woman turned up in Buffalo, they got the van in Auburn. Their base is nearby. That’s why they dropped Erik’s coat in Pennsylvania. They assumed Knutson was a homeless man who would wander off with it, thereby providing a red herring. They’re close and they don’t want us to know it.”

The Wattells look almost relieved. Even Torres seems slightly more hopeful. Hunter-Adams, on the other hand, is in another world. Blake can almost see the wheels spinning behind his eyes.

“If the search range is fairly narrow I have a few shiny new toys that might help. Let me just get the lab organized. Malcolm, you want to come with?”

***

“Are you sure you don’t want to go back home, Caleb?”

“No, it’s okay.”

“You don’t have to be brave about it, baby.”

“It’s not that. If we go home, then Dev and J.T. will know it, and they’ll ask me about Erik, and I don’t think I can lie.”

“I can see that. Okay.”

“Why haven’t they called us?”

“They will. We’re on the list to call as soon as they know anything, and they will call. It’s only been a few days and these things can take time, unfortunately.”

“It freaks me out, Mom. Erik is a good fighter, and he’s pretty tough. How could they just grab him like that?”

“Oh, honey. Nobody in the whole world is that tough. Anyone can get into trouble. They’ll find him and he’ll be okay. It might take a while, though.”

“Yeah. Jesus.”

“Your friend is going to need your help when he gets home.”

“Oh, no. Erik wouldn’t get into drugs. He hates them.”

“Then it will be something else. Just keep that in mind. I bet we get a call tonight or tomorrow. I bet you five dollars they find him very soon.”

***

The moment Erik tests the strength of the sink, Zabala pulls him away. Benny the Zombie doesn’t seem like it when Erik explores the limit of his chain either, but he doesn’t stop him. He only reacts when Erik touches a windowsill or tests a floorboard, taking his instructions very literally. He doesn’t stop Erik from pacing, which is fortunate, because the cottage is very chilly and Erik is anxious, angry, and bored. He doesn’t have time for this nonsense. He’s supposed to be enjoying spring break. He should be at a movie with Caleb right now, or having dinner with Andre and Mari. Next week he’s supposed to take his driving test and join the MacGregor’s for Seder. He needs to get his midterm results. Cross country is starting soon. He wants to talk to Ms. Miller about private singing lessons. Just thinking of all the ways the kidnapping has screwed up his schedule is enough to make Erik want to punch a wall, not that Benny would let him.

And then there's Maddy and Marcus. They’re probably at home now, sick with worry, unable to work or go anywhere. Andre will be working with the cops. His Redwing team will be doing the same, no doubt, like they need this distraction with a company to run. Maddy might be crying. Mari, too, come to think of it. If these idiots kill him his newfound family will be terribly upset, maybe for years to come. Intolerable!

Erik hears footsteps outside the cottage. This is the third time there’s been a scuttling back and forth out there. They’re up to something.

This time it’s just Julia, a little out of breath, and she’s holding a bag.

“Sorry this is late, sweetie, something came up. I’ll have to get you your space heater tomorrow, so just get into your sleeping bag and wait it out. Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about you.”

She tosses the bag his way and rushes out before he can say a word. Inside there’s a plastic container of room-temperature brown rice and vegetables and a flimsy plastic spoon from some fast food joint. Revolting, but he needs to keep his strength up, and pining for Cuban-style pork chops won’t help him now.

***

It takes an hour for the lab staff to prepare a workroom, but if Hunter-Adams’s “toys” are as effective as his phone tracker, it was worth it. The first is a tiny helicopter reminiscent of a spindly grey insect. Blake has seen plenty of unmanned aerial vehicles, but this one is very elegant. Hunter-Adams informs him that it’s also nearly invisible and capable of higher altitudes and a wider range than almost anything else on the market. It can carry the second “toy,” a sensor capable of monitoring electrical energy use from a distance and relaying the information back to a computer tracking program in real time.

“What Professor Mortimer said about the original Mega Wave lab inspired me. Even with technological improvements, the users will require a tremendous amount of electrical power at all times. This device is sensitive enough to pick up a small grow op or an underground hideout, never mind a lab of this nature. We have to wait until first light to use it, but in the meantime we can narrow the search to specific targets.”

It is getting late. Andre urges Matty and Marcus to get some rest. He will join them at the Jefferson Clinton. Walker and the English investigators want to confer somewhere on their own, and Malcolm will stay at the lab with Hunter-Adams.

“Don’t worry about Malcolm. I have a guest room in my living quarters and I think the fridge has been stocked recently. If not, we can order something.”

“Living quarters? You mean here, at the lab?” Andre asks.

“That’s right. It was one of the big draws of this job. I haven’t left this complex for two years. I will if I have to in this case, of course, but I don’t think it will be necessary. My machines do my wandering for me.”

Chapter Text

Disembodied hands drag him to a chair bolted to a metal platform. They’re impossibly strong as they tie him down, fastening leather straps around his wrists, ankles, and chest. A crash helmet is clamped down on his skull and he tenses, anticipating agony, and wakes up just before impact, as he always does in this dream.

Full consciousness offers little relief this time. Erik is still in the cottage, still chained, still chilled to the bone, even inside the sleeping bag. Benny the Zombie is watching him, just as he was last night when the cottage went dark. Did he sleep at all? Does he sleep while standing, like a horse?

He’s getting to the energy conservation stage of captivity, Erik realizes. It’s too late for a quick escape and now it’s about staying alive, looking for opportunities, trying not to get too sick, hurt, or scared to act.

“Benny, go get Julia.”

The zombie man doesn’t move. He hardly blinks. Still, worth a try. Control slips with the Mega Wave. He knows this from experience, and these idiots aren’t giving their subject enough down time, which might speed his collapse. He’ll have to keep pushing. It will give him something to do and help keep the fear at bay, which is getting to be more and more difficult.

Erik calms himself with a counted breathing routine and considers. If he gets killed, his journey is over. There will be mourners and, more importantly, there will be avengers. Even in that worst case scenario there’s some comfort. If they blast his brain with whatever they’ve created in the way of a telecephaloscope it will be bad, but someone will find him. Andre will arrange for him to be treated until he heals or dies. Maybe the Wattells will help. That seems likely, come to think of it. They took care of him when he had strep, they’d step up for this, at least for a while. Of course, it may not come to that. Benny might slip. Maybe he can cause a rift between Gideon and Julia. Maybe the machine won’t work on him this time. Or maybe the cops will do their job and find him. It would be sweet to see his captors led away in handcuffs.

It’s Wednesday, about 6:30 in the morning judging by the light. He’s supposed to call Noelle at noon. Has anyone told her? Probably not, but she’ll worry if he doesn’t call. Christ, what if the press has caught wind of this? It will follow him for the rest of his life. Stop it. This is not strategic thinking. Focus on the now. Get warm, get active, watch your breathing, watch for opportunities.

***

Malcolm times his drive from the lab so he hits the first property as the sun is rising. He can’t see William’s little whirlybird, but it’s there, somewhere above, doing its job.

“Worth checking out, William?”

“Negative. Minimal power use, consistent with an unoccupied building.”

Malcolm takes a quick look around anyway before getting back to Lincoln. They have nine more properties to inspect between Rochester and Syracuse, and if they don’t find Erik in one of these they’ll have to recharge and tackle the west side of the range in the afternoon.

“Ready to go, Malcolm?”

“Right-o. Watch me beat you to the next target.”

“Beat my little spy gnat? I think not.”

***

Agent Walker meets Captain Blake and Professor Mortimer early for breakfast. He’s already been in touch with Andre, who has promised to sit tight with the Wattells and await results. Ideally they’d go home, but if they must be in Syracuse, he’s glad they’re following instructions and not harassing investigators, at least not yet. Browning and Hunter-Adams are checking addresses for power usage. Browning has sworn up and down that in the unlikely event they find something, they’ll call the police before acting. Walker thinks the whole thing is a snipe hunt and is just glad they’re out of the way.

“So what is it about the rental car agency that you’ve been holding back?” Blake asks. “You said the renter wasn’t one of our suspects, so…”

“Figured you’d catch that. Potential for a total shit show is what. The kid’s leather bracelet was found in a white van at the Auburn U-Haul, and good on him for leaving us a clue. It was rented by one Benjamin Franklin Zabala, age 28, of Rochester, junior security guard for Parthenon International.”

“Oh, dear.”

“So there is direct involvement!” Mortimer says. “I’ll be damned.”

“Until about eight weeks ago Zabala was living at home with his parents and two younger sisters. I spoke to one of them and she said Benny told the family he’d been selected for a special assignment, something very big and very secret, extra pay and everything. He had been calling them regularly like a good boy, but that stopped ten days ago. They’re worried, but he’s still on the payroll.”

“Really?” Blake asks. “That’s an odd oversight.”

“It sure is. I had someone call from Rochester yesterday pretending to be doing a rent agreement check. I didn’t want to spook them if Ronald Junior was, in fact, lying to my face.”

“I can see why you wouldn’t want to discuss that in front of the Redwing people”

“Exactly. I don’t want them to even think about Parthenon just yet.”

“You think they’d try to take revenge?” asks Phillip. “What am I saying? Of course they would. It would be a bloody mess, perhaps literally.”

“I would not want to sic Malcolm Browning on anyone without being absolutely sure,” Blake says. “There’s something off about this business. Redwing isn’t a threat to Parthenon, there’s no feud here, no history. This seems like a very personal crime. You haven’t found anything between Ivan Ostrovsky and Ronald Atcheson?”

“Nothing. That’s why I want to get my sights lined up before I go kicking Parthenon’s doors down. I need evidence, and I need my superiors to back me. You’re right, everything about this smells of rotten fish.

***

While Gilly is in the shower Julia takes the opportunity to call Pinker on his mobile and order him prisoner duty this morning. She can’t keep running back and forth without raising suspicion and Pinker hasn’t been pulling his weight on this caper. He sulkily agrees as long as he has the day to work. Fine. Whatever. Just don’t forget to give the kid something to eat and drink and don’t get sucked into a conversation.

Julia makes a pot of tea and slices two apples. She’ll sauté them in coconut oil with a bit of cinnamon and add them to granola. Gilly will like that. After the initial shock she and Gideon had made a point of being very welcoming to the silly girl, and their dinner together had seemed almost like old times. Even Pinker had managed ten minutes of almost civilized behaviour before he’d taken his helping of penne arrabiata back to the lab like a raccoon.

She’d only had a moment to confer with Gideon, but it was obvious that they’ll either have to get Gilly back to England quickly or bring her into the experiment completely. If they can make her an accomplice, she’s theirs forever. Today is all about figuring which course to take, but unfortunately Julia has other tasks on her plate as well.

Gilly emerges fresh, hair still a little damp. Some time in the last two months she’s learned to buy clothes that fit, Julia notes. The jeans and green jumper are nothing special, but the girl looks good. It occurs to Julia that some day Gilly might make an excellent Number 3 in the order, maybe higher depending on Gideon’s performance.

“Tea’s ready, my darling! Sit down and tell me all about what miracles you’re working with Charisma while I finish breakfast.”

Gilly is happy to share her good news. The business is doing well and her little innovations have been successful to one degree or another. She shows Julia the financials and explains her plans for Easter, assuming that Julia will stay in America in April.

“I’m afraid so. Our work here is far from done, but seeing how well you’re doing with the business fills me with confidence.” Julia sighs wistfully. “You wouldn’t believe how busy I am these days. Gideon has a big event planned for Saturday and I’m supposed to take care of the details - you know how he is - but I have things to do in town as well. There aren’t enough hours in the day.”

Gilly cannot resist bait like that. She jumps at the chance to make calls from the house phone and look after Gideon while Julia does her bit in town. Gideon will probably get up late and work on his presentation until he goes out later to meet with potential members of the Order, so Gilly will make him coffee and something for lunch. It doesn’t matter to Gilly; whatever she can do, she will do.

“Gilly, you are a treasure. Hey, I have a brilliant idea. Gideon will be out late tonight and Pinker is always in the lab. What do you say to a girls’ night in? Lyons has a decent video store and we can have our own little film fest. I’ll pick up some wine and popcorn. What do you think?”

“Oh, that sounds lovely! You know, I can’t remember the last time I had a fun, girly evening. I’ll make us a stir-fry, and some vegan cookies.”

“Perfect! Something just for us. And when the boys are away, I have more to tell you about this business. Not a word to anyone just yet, though, all right?”

Of course it’s all right. Gilly is thrilled to be back with the team.

***

Furtive footsteps on the porch. Not Gideon, not Julia. Ah, of course. It’s the little weasel, and he seems surprised to see Erik doing push-ups in the hallway.

“What are you doing?” Erik pegs his accent as Northern England, working class or lower middle-class, not that he’s an expert.

“I’m exercising as much as I can under the circumstances. What are you doing?”

“Brought you breakfast. Benny, hold on to him.” The zombie grabs Erik around the middle in a paralyzing grip. Pinker edges over sideways, puts a can and a bag down in front of Erik, and backs off quickly. Benny lets go on Pinker’s signal and Erik picks up the offering: teriyaki beef jerky and cream soda. Good lord. These people cannot be eating prison food soon enough.

“You realize that I’m still growing, don’t you? Or are you trying to prevent that?”

“Eh? Growing? I don’t see what effect that would have on your Mega Wave. You don’t look all that well, though. I was promised a healthy subject.”

“I’ve been a prisoner for two days. What’s your excuse?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Dark circles, skin erupting, and you literally stink. Something on your conscience?
Pinker glares at the boy. “Never mind about me, I’m on the verge of a scientific miracle. Worry about yourself! Benny, come with me. And don’t you think of trying to escape again, you. We’ll be watching.”

***

“Malcolm, doesn’t it seem odd to you that so many of these places are listed as undeveloped, but have mobile homes or modulars? What’s up with that?”

“Don’t know. Tax dodge? Development scheme? You’d have to ask Doris. My question is, who owns these places?”

“I’m curious about that myself. Is there one owner in league with the kidnappers? Are they squatting? Or is this the F.B.I. throwing us off the scent for their own reasons? Agent Walker wasn’t very forthcoming, was he?”

“No, he was not. Tell you what, William, why don’t you pass this list on to Doris when you have a minute? She might see something we don’t.”

“Will do. The wind is picking up, Malcolm. The gnat is going to have to recharge soon.”

“Just a few more and I’ll carry her home in the car, okay? Two more.”

***

Erik manages four sips of the cream soda before giving up. A hummingbird would choke on this garbage. He leans on the sink and pushes. Of course it would be the most solid thing in the whole damned house. No matter, he tries again, and again, and again. There’s not so much as a stray nail left for him to work into the lock, so he’ll have to go for the Sword of Damocles approach.

***

It takes some prompting for Stacey the U-Haul clerk to remember the transaction, but it all comes back when Walker shows her Zabala’s high school graduation picture. She has it now. Stacey had been a little worried because he maybe had some kind of mental problem, but his license was valid, so what business was it of hers?

“Mental problem? Why did you think that?” Walker asks.

“He didn’t talk. His cute friend said it was because he had something wrong with his throat but there was something else going on for sure. He was real clumsy with his hands, you know? Could hardly write his name. And his buddy practically led him in and out the door. But I’m not allowed to decline a customer just because I think it’s weird. He wasn’t drunk or anything.”

“Can you describe the friend?”

“Oh, yeah, he was super cute for an older guy. I’d say thirty-five maybe, but distinguished. Your height, maybe a little taller, nice build, wavy blond hair. I didn’t see his eyes because of his glasses, but he had a real pretty voice. I think he was from the south somewhere.”

Walker shows her the picture. Yes, that’s him, Stacey confirms. Yes, she’s sure. She got a good look at the man and wouldn’t mind another. She doesn’t think he could possibly have done anything wrong, because he was so polite and nice. Heck, he had practically held Zabala’s hand the whole time.

***

Pinker’s reflection in the telecephaloscope casing tells him that the brat has a point. He hasn’t shaved in several days and his beard is scratchy and asymmetrical. He’s almost positive he’s showered within the last few days, but maybe he forgot the soap? That happens sometimes. How can he be expected to look his best when he’s making science history? It’s unreasonable. People notice that kind of thing, though. Gilly had hugged him yesterday. Was it his imagination, or had she recoiled a little? She wouldn’t do that, would she? She’d been friendly enough, and had made a very good dinner, but he can’t deny that she doesn’t look at him the way she looks at Gideon. Gideon is tall and blond and foppish. He uses cologne and hair conditioner, Pinker has seen it himself. Is that really what women like?

The kid has a lot of nerve criticizing Pinker’s looks when his own hair is greasy and his face is bruised. He looks better than Benny, too. Actually, Benny is a bit corpse-like at the moment. Perhaps that’s why he’s been increasingly erratic. Julia and Gideon have been riding him too hard. They could both use a bit of refurbishment.

“Benny, stop and listen!”

The zombie man stops picking up trash and waits for instruction.

“Finish picking up the trash, then throw the boxes in the big green bin. Understand?”

Benny nods with his whole body.

“Then change your clothes and clean yourself up. Then come back. Understand?

Benny stands there like an idiot. Clearly he does not understand.

“Take off those clothes, tidy yourself, then put clean clothes on. Then come back here and rest. Do you understand?”

Benny nods this time. Good. It’s not great that he needs to be told everything twice. Maybe it will be better with a younger, more resilient subject coursing with human growth hormone. He’ll have to make careful notes. Later. Right now he needs to put a pot of water on the forge.

***

Gilly offers to do the washing up to allow Julia an early start. She considers cleaning the whole kitchen and maybe beyond, but Julia mentioned that the service is coming tomorrow, so that would be a waste of time. They don’t have the ingredients on hand for a quick bread or she’d make something nice for Gideon’s breakfast. She could make the cookies now, but they’d be better fresh.

Despite what Julia said about the difficulty of the task, it only takes Gilly an hour to find places nearby that will provide chairs and food for a small event. The community is too small to offer a lot of choice and the prices are consistent. She tentatively books The Purple Carrot Company and promises to get back to them by the end of the day to confirm. It’s not even ten and she’s done with work, at least until Gideon wakes up. It’s tempting to put on the television to kill some time, but Gilly was raised to believe that daytime television is for the old and sick only, and cannot bring herself to that point of self-indulgence.

What she should really do is visit Kevin. Gilly regrets the awkwardness of their meeting yesterday, but he had positively lunged at her. She’d been startled, but now she’s afraid she might have hurt his feelings. Kevin does have feelings, however oddly he expresses them. He’s not looking after himself very well, judging by his pallor and obvious fatigue. Julia and Gideon really shouldn’t have permitted him to move into the lab. It’s not like there’s much of a commute between the old barn and the house. What he needs is some exercise and a little vitamin D. To make up for yesterday, she’ll invite him for a walk, and then they can both come back to the house. She’ll make coffee for everyone. Gideon should be up by then, and they’ll all have a nice visit together and catch up.

***

Malcolm pulls over on a quiet section of Highway 31 and waits. In a few minutes the spy gnat (marketing will change the name later) appears and drops in a nearby field.

“Did you get it, Malcolm?”

“Keep your pants on, I’m looking for it. My eyes aren’t what they once were, you know.”

The little UAV lives up to his promise of invisibility. Malcolm doesn’t notice it until it’s an inch from his boot, easily camouflaged in the dry stalks. He picks it up and stores it safely in the trunk of the Lincoln.

“Your precious babe is safe, William. Did you get a reading?”

“Yes, but it only had the juice for one pass, so no confirmation I’m afraid. If it’s accurate the target is consuming a massive amount of electrical power, enough for a small factory.”

“And it’s supposed to be vacant. Well, we’ll just have to see about that.”

“It could be a grow-op, or a chop shop. Would have to be huge though.”

“Or it could be the bastards who took our boy. I’m going in. I drive up a bit, then continue on foot. Be ready to call for backup.”

“Oh, god, Malcolm. I wish I hadn’t let you go alone. Are you sufficiently armed?”

“I have a gun, a knife, and there’s a nice pointed stick in the hedgerow. That should do it.”

“Please be careful.”

“Always. Just stay close to the blower.”

***

Whoever built this cottage was an idiot. The sink is bolted to the very foundation with what has to be railroad spikes and sealed in with five different layers of flooring.It takes an age for Erik to make the thing wiggle, hampered as he is by the lack of boots, leverage, and a sledge hammer. He pushes from different angles, and yes, there’s movement. He’ll probably end up taking up half the floor with it, but it’s moving. Erik turns to literally put his back into it and is shocked to see a total stranger. From the look of absolute horror on her face, she wasn’t expecting to see him either.

“Who the hell are you?”

She stares at him, mouth open. “I’m Gilly. My god. Who are you? What is happening?” She looks like she might faint.

“I’m Erik Ostrovsky. I’m a prisoner here. They kidnapped me and they’re going to kill me if I don’t get out.”

“Oh, no. Oh, dear god, dear god. What have they done?” She sits on the floor abruptly and covers her face with her hands. Erik realizes that she’s definitely English and probably in her early twenties, maybe even late teens. What on earth is she doing here?

Gilly hauls herself upright and walks right over to Erik. She’s frightened, but not of him. She slaps at her jacket and starts to cry. “My phone is back at the house. I left it on the charger! What should I do?”

“Do you have a hairpin? Paper clip? Anything like that?”

She checks her pockets. “I have some change.”

“No good to me. Who’s in the house right now?”

“Gideon for sure. Julia will be soon. I’ll go back right now and call for help. Is it 9-1-1? Is that real?”

“Wait. Think for a second. Are you a good liar? Can you lie to them?”

She shakes her head and cries even harder. “No! I’m a terrible liar. I always get caught, And they’re my friends! They were my friends.”

“Then don’t go back. Listen, there’s a farmhouse about a half a mile south of here. I’ve almost knocked this sink over, but I can’t get there myself if I have to drag it. If you can get help as soon as possible, we both have a chance of surviving. Do you see what I mean?”

Erik sees each thought on her face as Gilly absorbs his meaning, retreats into denial, and comes to grips with reality. She wipes her eyes. “All right, I’ll run for it. If you get out, be careful. Kevin is working in the lab and he might be able to hear you.”

She ducks below the window line and leaves the cottage, only to return in seconds with two hefty chunks of metal, formerly part of the bed frame. She hands them over without a word and speeds off, looking for all the world like a rabbit as she sprints into the field.

***

Gideon wakes up late to a silent house. No noise, no conversation, no smell of coffee. How curious, although not curious enough to alter his routine. He makes himself clean and beautiful before heading into the kitchen, choosing a jumper in a shade of blue that sets off his eyes.

“Hello! Good morning!”

Nothing. He recalls that Julia was going into town this morning. Gilly was supposed to stick around and help though. She’s not still lolling in bed, is she? He pokes his head into the guest room and sees only a neatly made twin bed, a suitcase, and a mobile phone on its charger. Where is that stupid child? If she went into town with Julia he would be truly annoyed. He’d been looking forward to a fry-up and a bit of sincere admiration. You’d think they would have had the courtesy of leaving a note. His mood ruined, Gideon brews his own pot of coffee and fixes himself some toast. He’ll guilt Gilly into making it up to him later.

***

One final push and the sink tilts over taking vinyl, linoleum, tile, and wood with it. Incredibly, the thing is still intact, but Erik takes care of that by hacking at the joint between the sink and the pedestal until it separates with a crash. He slips the chain free and takes a slug of the lukewarm cream soda. Disgusting, but he can’t be a chooser just yet. Soon, with luck. He winds the chain around his right arm, taking care not to tangle it.

He steps out of the cottage and crouches on the tiny porch, hidden from view. He can hear birds, wind, and the faint sound of something going on in the big barn. He checks the terrain, determining sight lines and possible routes. Should he try to run again, or hide in place? There’s something on the path that requires investigation. Erik steps down cautiously, and examines the pile of clothes. They’re Zabala’s, no question. The shoes are tangled up in the shorts and jeans, as if he had peeled everything off while standing there. The shoulder holster is on the second to last layer. Erik removes the pistol. It’s a Glock 22, a cop’s gun, no manual safety, fully loaded. Erik’s decision is made.

He tucks the gun into his pocket and rolls up the bundle of clothes. He tosses the pile under the cottage step; no point in leaving the clue for others to find. In a few seconds he’s at the barn door, which is already cracked open slightly. The weasel, Pinker, is there, standing in front of a massive stone fireplace in only his briefs. It’s not a pleasant sight, but it’s nice of the little monster to be as vulnerable as possible for this occasion. Erik takes a deep breath, shoulders the door wide open and bursts into the lab. Pinker is startled enough to bolt and nearly falls over a tub of water. Erik releases the chain and whips it around Pinker’s neck like a lariat. A quick yank and he’s down and squawking. Erik grabs a pile of clean clothes from the hearth. He stuffs a sock in Pinker’s mouth, ties his hands with the shirt, and binds his ankles with the trousers. One down. He unwinds the chain from Pinker’s neck and takes stock.

They’re alone in the lab, and Pinker is quite helpless. That gives him a minute. The blazing fire in the forge feels wonderful, but that’s not its only use. Erik gathers up all the notes and papers he can find and tosses them into the fire, ignoring Pinker’s frantic thrashing and whimpering. He spots the light weapon. It’s as simple as a water pistol. He aims at the wall and fires. It has no effect on the way, but he can feel a sort of shockwave recoil. Interesting. Should he keep it, or smash it? For now, he’ll keep it. When all the paper is blazing merrily, Erik opens the mini fridge - identical to the one he has at home - and finds a bottle of water among the cans of sugary soda. It goes down easy.

Erik continues to search the lab, looking for bolt cutters, tin snips, a phone, a hacksaw, anything that will aid his escape. With a start he realizes that the telecephaloscope - or whatever they’re calling this thing - is still ticking along. That will not do at all. He follows the wires to an industrial outlet and yanks out the plugs. The humming of the machine stops abruptly, leaving the barn silent except for Pinker’s muffled sobs and whines.

***

Hundreds of yards away, Benny Zabala wakes up. His nightmare is over. He gasps, stares up at the pale, overcast sky, and collapses, naked as the early spring apple trees that surround him.

***

Malcolm has a good view of the target property from the roadside. Contrary to the records, it’s far from empty. There’s a big modular home, ugly as sin but brand new. The outbuildings are older, but one of them is clearly in use; he can see a thick column of smoke coming from the chimney.

“I’m going in, William. House first, then barn.”

“Keep the line open. I’m listening.”

Malcolm pockets his phone and makes sure his shoulder holster is covered. Sneaking is something best left to people smaller and younger than Malcolm. Instead, he walks straight to the front door and knocks, prepared to play the part of a motorist in distress. There’s no answer after his third knock. He tries the door and finds it unlocked, so in he goes, gun in hand.

“Place is empty. I’m going to search room to room.”

“Good luck.”

The house is ugly on the inside too, but the furniture is decent. There are dirty dishes in the sink and newspapers on the coffee table, but otherwise it’s neat enough. Malcolm is struck by how new and impersonal everything is, at least until he reaches the office beside the girly master bedroom. The Book of Mu is prominent on the desk, and as he flips through the first few pages Malcolm feels himself grow cold.

“Cop time, William. Send them my way, and hurry.”

***

Malcolm doesn’t know it, but he’s just missed the man of the house. While he was approaching the front door, Gideon was enjoying an after breakfast smoke on the back deck. He was rehearsing his order recruitment pitch when he’d noticed that the door of Benny’s motorhome was wide open. What the hell? What has he done to deserve such stupid underlings? Does he have to do everything around here all by himself? He’d been prepared to let it go, but as he smoked it occurred to him that Gilly might be snooping in there. Just as Malcolm reaches the front door, Gideon stubs the butt on the railing and goes to investigate.

The motorhome is empty, fortunately. Gideon shrugs off his suspicions and is about to return to the house when he sees someone in the orchard. At least he thinks he does. Either he’s hallucinating, or there was a strange man in the field a second ago. Where the hell is GIlly? Where the hell is Julia? They should be back by now. Gideon doesn’t like being alone for long at the best of times, and this weird morning is starting to creep him out. He decides to go to the barn and give Pinker a piece of his mind, or at least enjoy the dubious pleasure of his company. Maybe Pinker knows where Gilly is, what with his pathetic schoolboy crush and all.

Gideon trudges to the barn, fuming. This door is wide open as well. What is going on in Pinker’s pointed head? Gideon steps inside, prepared to unleash fury on the man, and stops dead when he sees Erik, the brat, the hostage, the guinea pig, working away at his chain with a hacksaw.

“Put that down! Put your hands up this second. Get on the floor. Now. Now!”

Erik raises one eyebrow and sets the saw down on the workbench. “It’s over, you fool. The cops will be here in a minute. Gilly turned you in and Julia is probably spilling her guts in an interrogation room. Give up now and maybe they’ll cut you a deal. Or maybe they just won’t shoot you.”

“It is not over you… you subject. I command you to raise your hands! Obey me this instant!”

“Go to hell.”

“How dare you? Do you know who I am? Do you know what I can do to you? I am The First Septimus! I own you!”

Erik reaches into his pocket and draws the pistol.

“Unless you’re suddenly bulletproof, I don’t think there’s a damned thing you can do to me.”

Gideon glares at the insolent child. He lifts his right hand imperiously and holds his head high. In his best pulpit voice he calls out the master formula: “By Horus, stay!”

It works. The boy’s face goes blank, stunned, transfixed. The First Septimus has come into his power. He strides towards the boy, right hand held in a commanding salute. This bold gesture is the reason the bullet blasts Gideon’s hand apart before it settles in his spine. The founder and leader of The Order of the Golden Mu flops on his back and makes ghastly noises. Erik notes that his weak convulsions are confined to the top half of his body. Two down, two to go.

Erik takes a slow breath, four counts in, four counts out, and allows himself to feel relief for a moment. Surely Gilly has summoned help by now. If not, he can probably make a call from the house. Of course, Zabala is still out there somewhere, and Julia, and they’re both incredibly dangerous in different ways. He must be on guard. There’s a noise outside. Erik snaps the gun up and stands ready to fire. A dark form fills the doorway.

“Stand down, son.”

“Malcolm!”

Erik drops his arm and loosens his grip on the gun. Malcolm takes it from his hand and places it carefully on the workbench. He puts his shearling jacket around the boy and very gently guides him outside.

“William, are you still there?”

“What’s happened, Malcolm? Are you all right?”

“Everything is fantastic. Erik is safe and well. Let’s spread the good word, shall we?”

Chapter Text

Blake and Mortimer wait in the pick-up line at Raven’s Roast while Agent Walker answers one call after another. Blake gets the barista’s attention and switches the order to take out as he watches Walker bounce on his toes. Maybe it wasn’t a great idea for the F.B.I. man to order a triple shot, but that’s none of Blake’s business.

“Francis, I just realized something.”

“What’s that?”

“I think we’re dressing too old for how we look now,” Phillip whispers. “We should fix that. Eventually, I mean. It was just a passing thought.”

Blake smiles. He will never get bored with his partner’s ability to juggle five different ideas at once.“Judging from Walker’s face we might be finished with this case sooner than you think. Maybe you’ll have a chance to shop in New York City after all.”

Walker waves them outside and away from clusters of bystanders.

“I have some good news, and some weird news. They found the kid out on a farm near highway 31. He’s fine, just a little shaken up.”

“Ah, thank god,” Phillip says, and he means it.

“Those Redwing wackos found him, but get this: a girl called the state police in Lyons with information on the kidnapping thirty minutes ago, and she says Julia Grenfell is in Lyons.”

“And Lyons is?”

“Between here and the police station. I’m thinking we swing by before we meet up with the rescue team. We might get lucky.”

***

William calls Doris. Doris calls Assiz and has her assistant call the Redwing security team. Malcolm calls Andre who is waiting with Maddy and Marcus. Once they’ve had a chance to hear Erik’s voice, they call Jim Clark and Candice Cummings. Andre calls Maribella. Malcolm calls Kelly and tells her he’ll be home for dinner, the boy is well.

The boy is well, more or less. Malcolm makes him sit on one of the old peeled logs that mark the path and starts a small fire right there on the gravel with dry grass and what was his pointed stick.

He leaves Erik to warm up and to the barn to get more wood and take care of a few pressing matters. Gideon is still alive, gurgling and leaking away. Malcolm spots a nearly intact finger by the workbench and picks it up with the tip of his buck knife.

“You’re going to wish he had shot you dead, my friend. And you will wish that for as long as I decide you live.”

Gideon doesn’t respond, at least not coherently. Malcolm flicks the finger into the still roaring fire and follows it with a packet of paper from his back pocket. The last ten pages of The Book of Mu take several seconds to catch, but they burn brightly. Malcolm stirs the ashes and tightens Pinker’s bonds. The kid did a good job for a beginner, but he left the prisoner a little too comfortable.

With that taken care of, Malcolm collects the water bottle, the hacksaw, and some firewood, and returns to Erik, who looks as if he’s about to fall asleep sitting up. Browning props Erik’s ankle up on the log and works the hacksaw until he splits a link. A little more effort and the chain is off. Erik sighs in relief and rubs his ankle which, Malcolm notes, is bleeding slightly and ringed with purple bruises. That’s something he’ll remember if he ever feels he’s being too hard on these criminals.

“I think I hear an ambulance coming,” says Malcolm.

“Me too. There’s a naked guy somewhere around here who will need their help.”

“Yeah? You have had an interesting week, haven’t you?”

The boy rubs his eyes. “I hope they don’t expect me to write an essay about how I spent my spring break.” The sound of sirens draws closer. “Am I going to be in trouble?”

“For shooting an arsehole who needed shooting? Nah, I don’t think so. How old are you, anyway.”

“Sixteen this Sunday.”

“A child of tender years, I reckon. You don’t have to say a word to the cops until your foster parents and legal guardian are here, and then only if they agree.”

“Maddy and Marcus are coming here?”

“Absolutely! William sent a company car and he’s guiding their way. You just sit tight and let me know if you need anything.”

Erik smiles a little at that. Malcolm joins him on the log and puts his arm around the kid’s shoulder. They feed the fire and wait.

***

The Lyons downtown core is two blocks where everything in town that isn’t a franchise shares space with government buildings and churches. Walker cruises the perimeter twice before parking on the Broad Street side of Lyons Central Park, just behind a blue Honda Prelude. There are a few bags of groceries on the passenger seat, but nothing identifying.

“It might not even be her car. It’s not like we have a year or plate number,” says Walker. “Still worth a look. We’ll start on Canal, meet at Catherine Street, and regroup. Are you armed, Blake?

“I am, but I don’t think it will come to that. I certainly hope not.”
Walker shrugs. “Can’t be too careful with a cult.” He turns and walks East.

“Do you think this has a hope of working, Francis?”

“Not really, but let’s get it over with. Do you mind alternating buildings?”

“Anything to speed things up.”

Blake grins and ducks into a stationery store while Mortimer goes for the children’s boutique next door. No luck. They continue to the end of the block where Mortimer takes the video store while Blake enters a musty labyrinth of used books. The book store takes more of his time than he’d like, but at least Blake is untroubled by officious staff. The one employee on site barely acknowledges his existence and doesn’t move from her chair once. When he steps out he’s alone on the street. Phillip is still in the video store, and he’s talking to someone. Good heavens! It looks like he owes Agent Walker a coke. Blake steps away from the window and makes a very quick call.

After a few minutes, Mortimer comes out with a tall young woman in a dark red spring coat. They’re talking animatedly about spirituality and self-improvement. Good job, Phillip!

Blake hangs back and watches as Julia Grenfell charms his partner, who allows himself to be charmed. Walker is up ahead. He crosses the street and approaches them. Phillip waves.

“What luck! Julia, I want you to meet a friend of mine, Bradford Walker.”

Julia extends her hand. “Julia Grenfell, so nice to meet you.”

Agent Walker clasps her hand. “Miss Grenfell. You’re under arrest.”

Julia throws her bag of videos at Walker’s face and turns to flee. She slams into Blake’s arms and claws at him in her panic. It takes all three men to subdue her without causing injury. Eventually Walker gets her hands cuffed behind her back as she kicks and lunges. He recites the charges but can’t make himself heard over her screams.

***

The police and ambulance teams arrive in a swarm. The first ambulance scoops up what’s left of Gideon and blazes off. The second sticks around. Pinker is untied, examined, arrested, and stuffed in the back of a police car. Benny crawls out of the field and collapses. Two paramedics treat Zabala for dehydration and a possible head injury. He is not arrested just yet, mostly because Erik insists he’s innocent, despite every appearance. Another medic examines Erik. Most of what’s wrong with him can be fixed with rest and food. Time and a bit of antiseptic will take care of everything else. The medic dabs ointment on Erik’s lip and ankle, and goes a bit overboard by wrapping his ankle in yards of gauze.

Never in his life has Erik been treated with so much deference by the police. They bring him a blanket and his boots, which they find in Gideon’s room. One of the officers gives him an NYPD sweatshirt to replace the revolting tee. The F.B.I. agents are in charge, but the state police are on hand, taking pictures, asking questions. Malcolm has warned them all to back off until the boy’s guardians arrive, and to Erik’s astonishment, they listen.

More arrivals: mostly F.B.I. agents, who are obviously nudging the state cops out of the picture. A silver Volvo 900 drives to the end of the dirt path, waved on by police. Erik hears his name called and rises to see Maddy, Marcus, and Andre piling out of the car. Maddy is weeping and laughing. She wraps her arms around him and is in turn enveloped by Marcus, who is not exactly dry-eyed himself. Andre and Malcolm shake hands and grin at each other, unable to say what’s in their hearts.

“Oh, honey, we left in such a hurry. Your clothes are at the hotel. We should have brought them with us. I’m so sorry!”

“Maddy, please. Don’t apologize. I don’t want you to be sad or sorry, not ever.”

Andre comes in for his own hug. “God damn, I am glad to see you. Mari might not tease you for a year after this.” As Erik leans in he adds in a whisper, “Your English friends will be here soon. Be ready.”

“Thanks, Andre. I’m glad to see you too,” Erik answers sincerely.

Flanked by protectors as he is, Erik can hardly refuse to answer questions. He starts at the very beginning, stopping often to add details and clarify as prompted. It takes forever. He’s just getting to his first escape attempt when there’s the commotion of another arrival. A tall, very good-looking black guy in a suit and trench coat interrupts the interrogation with his own request.

“Hey there, Erik.” He squats down to get to the boy’s level. “I’m Special Agent Walker from the Buffalo F.B.I. office. If you’re up to it, I’d like you to try to identify one of the suspects. Do you think you can do that for me?”

Erik nods, unnerved by the extreme gentleness in Walker’s voice. Maddy and Marcus each take a hand, as if he were a little boy on his first day of school. He’s so struck by the sight of Julia in the police car that he barely registers that Blake and Mortimer are also right there, looking just as they did when he met them at Bletchley.

“Erik! Thank god!” Julia exclaims. She looks wild, eyes wide and frantic, makeup smeared all over her face. “Tell them about the great work! Tell them about our connection! They’re treating me like a criminal!”

Erik backs away from the car. “That’s her. That’s Julia. She and Gideon were the leaders of the whole thing.”

“He’s lying! He joined us willingly. He wanted to be the Third Subject! He wanted it!”

Maddy drops Erik’s hand and steps towards the car ready to yank Julia out by her hair before Marcus or Erik can stop her.

“Maddy, no! Two seconds! Two seconds!”
The reminder stops Maddy in her tracks. “You’re right sweetheart She’s not worth my fists. Bitch can learn to fight in prison.”

***

Agent Walker wants to confer with his colleagues and get completely caught up before he takes Julia in for processing. Arresting her is an important coup after Erik’s rescue by civilians, and he wants to make sure that everything is handled correctly, and he gets the credit he is due. While they wait, Blake and Mortimer position themselves at the edge of Erik’s family group to listen to his statement unobtrusively.

Mortimer has to admit that the boy looks very much like Olrik, unnervingly so. He’s also nothing like Olrik. It’s impossible to imagine the notorious criminal adventurer awkward and baby-faced. Erik’s voice is rougher and his accent and way of speaking are extremely American, nothing like Olrik’s precise and insolent turn of phrase. He recounts his ordeal with more good humour that Mortimer can imagine Olrik exhibiting in a lifetime, and frequently turns to Michael’s parents for support. In the middle of describing his second escape he asks his foster father to call his girlfriend to let her know he’s okay. He complains about being fed “crappy peanut butter sandwiches” and says he was “creeped out” by Julia’s tarot reading.

The story he tells infuriates Mortimer, and even Blake is visibly disgusted with the Golden Mu. They grabbed a minor child off the street, beat him, starved him, and locked him in an icy shack. They would have destroyed his brain with their tech if he hadn’t escaped in time. As he listens Mortimer can’t help but wonder what it is about the Mega Wave that leads to self-destruction: Septimus, Evangely, Lady Rowena, Lily Sing, and now this lot, who are very lucky to be alive.

It was a near thing with Gideon Fox-Devereux. The boy says he pointed the gun and gave a warning, but the man just said “something weird” and kept coming. The boy fired once. He was thinking of storming the house when Malcolm arrived.

“What did he say?” Walker asks.

The boy shrugs. “It’s so stupid. You won’t believe me. He said, ‘by horse, stay.’”

“By horse?”

“That’s what he said. I dunno. Can I go home soon?”

“That’s what I want to know,” says Marcus. “He hasn’t been in his own bed or had a decent meal in days. I think he’s had enough, don’t you?”

Mortimer goes to Walker’s vehicle and, ignoring Julia’s demands and insults, retrieves the bag from Raven’s Roast.

“Erik?”

The boy looks up in surprise. Innocent surprise.

“Here’s a ham and cheese sandwich and an apple if you'd like them.”

Erik clearly would like it, but he hesitates. “I shouldn’t take your lunch. I can wait a little longer.”

“No, please. go ahead.”

The officers of the law take a break before they wrap up to allow Erik time to eat, which he does with neatness and restraint. Mortimer notices the boy frowning, puzzled, not angry.

“You’re English, aren’t you?”

“Yes, we are,” says Blake, who has been standing just outside the boy’s line of sight.

“They’re investigators,” says Andre. “From MI5.”

“You’re kidding. Like James Bond? That’s real?”

“That’s MI6, and I assure you we are real,” Blake answers, very dryly.

Erik looks at Blake, then Mortimer, then Blake again. “Huh. Cool. Well, thanks for the food. And for helping out, I guess.”

***

Gilly is not under arrest, but she’s not free to go either. The state police at the Forgham Street office have been polite, but it’s clear they don’t really believe her. Gilly is a little tired of skepticism. She’d been a sweaty, disheveled mess when she reached the neighbouring farm, the property of Stan and Patty Medina. They hadn’t let her use the phone until she’d explained herself three times. The officers who collected her at the Medina place obviously thought she was cracked. The female officer who brought her a takeout chef’s salad forty minutes ago said they’re acting on her information, whatever that means but she hasn’t had a word since then. The room where they’ve put her is beige, square, lit by fluorescent lights, and musty. She has water in a waxed paper cup and a Time magazine from last year which she’s already read cover to cover. Gilly is seriously considering just leaving the room and demanding her rights when there’s a knock at the door. The man who comes through is familiar. Where has she seen him before?

“Ms. Montrose? I’d like to talk to you if I may.”

“You came to the store,” she says, bewildered.

“I did. My name is Francis Blake and I’m with MI5. We have much to say to each other.”

Gilly does not have a face for playing poker. He watches her connect the dots, mouth slightly agape, until she circles back to the question that’s uppermost in her mind.

“Did you find Erik?”

“Yes. He’s fine. He’s probably on his way home with his family by now.”

“Thank god. I’m so, so, so glad.” Gilly looks up at him and smiles. “I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

***

Andre passes out cards to the appropriate authority figures. If they need to talk to Erik again they can call him first; he is very firm on that. He has no intention of letting his legal ward, a minor, a victim of a heinous crime, to be badgered by anyone, not even law enforcement. He sees Erik into the Volvo with Maddy and Marcus and runs to catch up with Malcolm, who will lead the party back to Syracuse where a small plane is waiting for Erik and the Wattells. He and Malcolm will return together. Maribella and Kelly are waiting.

“You did great, Malcolm.”

“Eh, our boy pretty much rescued himself, but I was glad to be on hand. You didn’t do too badly yourself back there with the coppers.”

There’s a black Ford Explorer parked near the Lincoln. Leaning against it are two men who look like they could be on a fishing trip, except their clothes are oddly new and pressed, and they’re wearing dark glasses on a cloudy day. Malcolm glances their way and salutes. They return the gesture. Andre gets the impression that these guys aren’t with law enforcement in the traditional sense.

“I think it’s your turn to choose the music, Andre,” Malcolm says cheerfully. “Pick something loud.”

***

Assiz Hassan is of the opinion that a young man should focus on education and self-improvement and leave vengeance to seasoned adults. With that in mind he invites Browning and Hunter-Adams to the Friday afternoon meeting. William will attend remotely, of course, but since Malcolm has deigned to be there, Assiz has doubled the order of champagne and Malpeque oysters from Prince Edward Island. Doris and Malcolm have already expressed a desire to make life hell for the people who stole young Erik away, and that’s fine with Assiz. Everyone needs a hobby and he trusts his team to handle their mayhem with discretion and an eye to the bottom line. Today’s meeting is about what Redwing should do as a company and has nothing to do with the English idiots now in custody.

The evidence they’ve gathered already is overwhelming. Doris’s team had discovered the Parthenon connection shortly after Hunter-Adams faxed the list of properties. Assiz has since acquired copies of police reports that indicate that old Atcheson funded and directed the whole operation with both Parthenon and personal money. Fox-Devereux and the Grenfell woman had betrayed their patron immediately, and the witness who helped Erik has since confirmed their information. He walks the team through the statements, folding in the information from Doris’s investigation as he goes.

“I don’t understand why old Ronald would bother with us,” says Doris. “If Redwing disappeared tomorrow it wouldn’t affect Parthenon by more than one point of profit. I heard he’s grown eccentric, but this? It doesn’t make sense. All they’ve done is incur more enemies.”

“He didn’t attack us as a business,” Malcolm says, refilling her glass. “This was an attack on Ivan’s legacy, his future. I don’t think it was about money at all. It was a petty, mean bit of business.”

Assiz resumes. “I concur, although his motivation is irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. This was personal and our answering actions must be personal in effect but professional in execution. I understand you both have taken up side projects related to the kidnapping, and that’s your business. I wish you joy in your efforts. However, and I want to be very clear on this, when it comes to Parthenon we must act as a company, and we will focus on results rather than personal satisfaction. You know what that means.” He looks around the table and sees understanding and approval on the faces of Doris and Malcolm. Good.

He raises his voice to the speakerphone. “William, are you on board?”

“Absolutely. We’ll treat it like an operation. Total focus, total discretion. The lab will help in any way we can, of course. I have a few toys that may be useful.”

“We can budget it out of my department,” Doris says with a thin smile. “Call it collections. Aassiz, do you plan to tell Erik?”

Hassan shakes his head. “I see no reason to put this on a kid, even if he has proven to be tougher than I’d expected. We’ll stick a report in a vault for him to read some day, but not now. I think that’s what Ivan would have wanted.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that, Assiz. Ivan wasn’t a hands-on parent like you or me or Malcolm, but he wanted to keep his son safe. I think we owe him at least that.”

“I’m not worried about Erik’s safety,” says Malcolm. “I just think it would be nice for him to know some day, when he’s grown and done with college and whatnot, that his father’s friends unleashed disgrace and ruin and every other variety of hell on the people who hurt him. I’d like him to be able to look upon his enemies and see a smouldering ruin.”

Assiz puts a hand on Malcolm’s shoulder. “Beautifully expressed, Malcolm. I applaud the sentiment. Let’s keep that image in mind moving forward.”

***

Erik has always hated looking pathetic. Playing the wounded bird is a strategy. Perhaps you have to persuade police officers that you’re a German archeologist overcome with shock, or maybe you want to convince your enemies they’ve won so you can reach for a weapon. Actually being the wounded bird is abhorrent. It’s such a relief when they reach the Jefferson Clinton Suites where a hot shower, his own toiletry kit, and a complete change of clothes are waiting for him. He guesses correctly that Marcus picked out the slate blue pullover and silver grey shirt. Soon he’s looking like himself. His foster parents let him doze on the bed before their departure time. When they get home, they order from his favourite Thai place, and get double the usual number of spring rolls. It’s not until he’s in his own bed listening to the wind over the roof that he realizes that what he's feeling is profound, unfixed gratitude. This is the softest landing he’s ever had. Nobody is sneering at his misfortune. Nobody sees his weakness as an opportunity. Nobody is forcing him to hustle or hide.

Being generally grateful to the universe at large doesn’t exempt one from specific social obligations. Erik calls Noel and tells her all about his ordeal. It’s rough, but she takes it well. He makes a graceful, unnecessary speech to Marcus and Maddy and calls Jim Clark, who is still kicking himself for not tackling Julia after the play. He has a good talk with Andre and Maribella. When she’s out of earshot Andre compliments his performance for the cops. Erik might have to meet with them a few more times but is otherwise in the clear. Erik makes a point of asking Andre to ensure that neither Zabala nor Gill are chivied into a jail cell, as he doesn’t remember if he said anything about it on rescue day. Andre promises to do his best and passes on some interesting information about Zabala’s employer. There is no need for him to act on that information, Andre stresses. Such things will be dealt with by higher powers.

Erik calls those higher powers. He has a fun, casual chat with Malcolm and Kelly, more formal conversations with Assiz and Doris, and a truly weird exchange with William Hunter-Adams. To his amusement, each member of his team separately gives him a broad hint that bloody revenge will be on tap for as long as necessary and that he needn’t worry about publicity or testifying in court. Things are being handled behind the scenes. Good to know.

Caleb, Dev, and J.T. come over Thursday afternoon. Erik tells them as much of the story as he can without getting into ancient history, and asks for their help with managing the incident at school.

“Hey, as far as I’m concerned you spent the week in New York with me,” says Caleb. “You busted your lip learning to skateboard, but otherwise it was cool.”

Dev suggests that they fight rumours with rumours. If there are whispers about the kidnapping, they’ll double down with piracy or alien abduction. If someone throws out the shooting, they’ll claim Erik blew up a building. Soon nobody will believe anything anyone says about him.

“You going to be seeing Dr. Brock soon?” J.T. would ask that. Erik admits he’ll be on a twice-weekly schedule for a while, although he’s not happy about it. His friends don’t care how unhappy he is, he’d better follow doctor’s orders. J.T. says his mom has a good book on PTSD that he should read. He’ll bring it on the weekend. Also, distraction and exercise are healthy coping strategies, so why don’t they all grab their bikes and go to the park and then the record store?

With Andre’s permission, Special Agent Walker visits the Wattell home on Friday. He brings Erik’s possessions, his coat, camera, and wallet, and the leather bracelet from Mari. No, they won’t require them for evidence. Frankly, the chances of this ever getting to court are very slim. The people who kidnapped Erik don’t have a leg to stand on, literally in Fox-Devereux’s case, and this crime includes some weird international business above Walker’s pay grade. He will continue to be part of the investigation, however. There are leads that go beyond The Order of the Golden Mu and implicate some American interests.

This worries Maddy. She wants to know if these “interests” are active. Will Erik have to worry about them in the future, whoever they are? What is being done to stop them? Walker tells the family that while he cannot be specific, nobody responsible for kidnapping Erik will be able to harm him, or do much of anything, ever again. Both Maddy and Erik have studied human nature from different angles long enough to know when they’re seen the birth of an obsession. Marcus is just glad that Erik will be spared the ordeal of a public trial.

The weekend is for getting back to normal; Erik figures two days should be enough. He does his chores and walks Buddy. He writes letters and reviews his midterm notes. He works out with Marcus and goes out with the guys to see Fargo. He’s so focussed on routine that it’s a genuine surprise when he finds a brightly wrapped box on his placemat Sunday morning. He’s officially turned sixteen as far as the world is concerned.

“We wanted you to have something on the actual day,” Maddy says. She’s making a kind of eggs Benedict with Canadian bacon and avocado, but is not confident in her ability to poach eggs. They might have to make do with fried.

The gift is a lightweight camp stove and cook set, very neat and efficient. There are two sporks, two mugs, and two bowls for when Dev or J.T. comes to stay with him in the wall tent, Marcus says. He’ll be able to make his own coffee or a late-night grilled cheese without making a fire.

“It weighs less than 800 grams,” Marcus notes with the enthusiasm of a man who never met a stat or a spec he didn’t love. “You can keep it set up in the wall tent all summer, or pack it up nice and tight if you want to go back country hiking with your buddies. It should last you for years.”

“It’s perfect, thank you. I can’t wait to try it out. I bet I can poach eggs in it.”

“Hell, yeah, let’s do it. Babe, we’re going outside to test this thing. Wish us luck and be ready to grab a fire extinguisher.”

***

Frances Blake dislikes even the appearance of gloating, so with David Honeychurch’s approval he and Phillip stay in New York while Hector Montrose is pushed out of service. The shuffle will benefit Blake personally, but more importantly, it will improve the organization. He just doesn’t want to see it happen, so instead they play tourist. They visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park. They go clubbing in Chelsea and watch a dirt cheap parody of Doctor Who in a theatre carved out of an old gas station.

Work will invade, it always does. They’re enjoying a late breakfast in Greenwich Village when Agent Walker calls. It’s nothing urgent. He just wants to let them know that the Criminal Investigations unit of the Internal Revenue Service is getting involved in the Parthenon matter. He’ll keep in touch. And yes, he has seen the kid. Erik is throwing himself into his studies and seems to be doing well. Francis relays the information to Phillip who is trying chicken and waffles for the first time.

“And to answer the question that I can see written all over your face, none of this has changed my position regarding Erik Ostrovsky.”

“You still think he’s Olrik.”

“No, I’m still not positive and I think it bears monitoring.” Blake smiles at his partner. Phillip looks so handsome with his new haircut and green plaid shirt. He was right about them needing new clothes. “That said, I’m not making him my white whale. We’ve won a second chance at life and I don’t intend to waste it. If Olrik has done the same, I don’t wish him joy of it, but I’m ready to pass the problem on to a new generation.”

Phillip raises his coffee cup in a toast. “To a new set of problems.”

“And adventures. Together.”

***

If you can force your eye to skim over the security cameras and the razor wire on the fences, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility looks more like an expensive private school than a maximum security prison for women. Julia does her best to focus on the landscaping and architecture whenever she’s allowed outside. She avoids reflective surfaces, preferring to think of herself in her own elegant work outfits rather than the forest green sweatsuit she’s been allotted. The staff here watch her all the time and try to make her talk to psychiatrists or psychologists every day. They refuse to give back her clothes and jewelry. They refuse to provide vegan meals. They refuse to give her any news of Gideon or Pinker. They refuse to call the embassy or Amnesty International. She can’t even get a decent lawyer, although she’s tried and fired four already. At least today she has a visitor who may be a new lawyer. No one will tell her for sure.

Bedford Hills administrators pride themselves on their innovative, family-centered approach and humane treatment of inmates. It’s still a prison. Two guards escort Julia to a private room for her visit and place her firmly on a chair on one side of a thick, plexiglass barrier. She isn’t handcuffed, but she can’t go anywhere. After a minute two more guards bring in the visitor, a woman with a briefcase and an expensive looking tan coat.

The visitor sits down and the guards leave the room. They’re watching, though, and probably listening. Julia can’t say she approves of the woman’s appearance, apart from the coat, which is genuine camel if Julia has any eye at all. Why doesn’t she introduce herself? Why doesn’t she cover the white streak in her hair? Why would she choose a dress in such an eye-catching shade of green?
“Are you my new lawyer?”

“I’m a lawyer, although I haven’t practiced for years. My name is Doris Huttering.” She takes a sheaf of papers and some tortoiseshell reading glasses from her briefcase. “I see that you own your house outright. Excellent. You can probably raise additional funds from the business, although there’s no real estate equity there. Still, not a bad position. It will take your lawyers a long time to drain this completely.”

“What are you talking about? Why are you here if you aren’t my lawyer.” Julia is starting to wonder if this woman is mad. She certainly looks a bit mad.

The woman’s returning smile is not pleasant. “I see you’ve noticed my brooch.”

“It’s quite the statement.”

“It’s a battle axe. A dear friend gave this to me as a tongue-in-cheek tribute. Gold, enamel sapphires, and amethyst, custom made.”

“How nice for you.”

“Ivan had an odd sense of humour. I suspect his son might as well. You remember his son? The boy you kidnapped and tortured?”

“Get out.”

“Not just yet. You are not in charge of this meeting, Julia. I am. Now one of my colleagues is seeing to it that your friend, Mr. Fox-Devereux, never enjoys a moment of peace or happiness for the rest of his life, so I’ve decided to make you my project. My purpose is not to take your money, but to remind you of what is due to you. This for starters.”

Doris slips a bit of paper through a slit in the plexiglass. It’s the Ten of Swords from the Rider-Waite deck.

“Erik told us about your little hobby, so I thought you’d appreciate this. Such a grisly portent; ruin, bankruptcy, betrayal, destruction on all sides.”

“Get out of here! Guards! I want to go back! Now!”

“I don’t need cards to tell your future, Julia. You think jail is as bad as it gets? You’re wrong. You have no idea how truly awful life can be, but you will. Like the card says, the worst is yet to come.”

“Get out!” Julia screams.

“Yes, it’s time. So much to do, not to mention a dinner reservation at Le Bernardin.” Doris puts on her coat and shakes her hair free of the collar. “Funny thing. Everyone said you were so pretty, and yet… I wonder how you’ll look a year from now.”

***

Benny reclines on the bed he’s had since childhood and flips through the Monroe Community College calendar. It’s time to consider the future. The headaches have become far less frequent and his lawyer says he’s off the hook legally. He never thought he’d be thanking god for a lawyer, but Andre Torres has proven to be heaven-sent. Benny no longer works for Parthenon and never will again. He’d been summarily fired, then rehired, then let go with a generous severance package. Now Torres is pressing them hard for a settlement, enough so Benny never has to worry about medical bills again.

That may or may not happen. For now he has enough money to think about making a change. Tourism and hospitality? That would mean dealing with people. Automotive technology? Maybe not when he still hasn’t been cleared to drive. Computer science could be interesting. It’s safe desk work and the money is good. He’ll get Angie to drive him to the college next week and meet with a counsellor. Mom was right, he should have paid more attention in high school. There’s still time, though.

***

The same butchers who took his hand said that Gideon will never walk again. He refuses to believe that. He will get well, and someday his hand will be replaced with something better. He’s sure the technology is out there. The staff at Auburn Correctional Facility are useless, just like the people at Bellevue and the Newark-Wayne Community Hospital. None of them seem to realize how important it is that he get back to The Great Work. They’ve given him a “medical” cell and assigned other prisoners to wheel him to meals and chapel. That’s it. They won’t even give him a tape recorder or a scribe to record his sermons.

Gideon’s family have hired a New York lawyer and communicate through him, as calls and letters have proved impossible. He finds their questions frustrating and depressing. They seem to have an exaggerated picture of his so-called crimes (which were really old Atcheson’s fault). They’re afraid he will never come home again. Worse, his requests for money go unanswered. He has no idea when he’ll have a court date. The lawyer’s clerk - the only person who regularly returns his calls - has made suggestions that there won’t be a court date, as if he’d actually plead guilty.

His world is growing smaller, dangerously so. Gideon decides to reach out to other prisoners, form alliances. There are a few sturdy fellows who seem to run the place. He will speak to them, charm them, bend them to his will. These inmates are said to be among the most dangerous in Auburn, but they haven’t reckoned with a man whose mind is his weapon.

***

It is with great relief that Gilly turns the keys of Julia’s house over to the estate agent. She still feels an obligation to Julia, but relinquishing responsibility for the house is a big part of what her new therapist calls the process of letting go. The next step is to put Charisma up for sale, but Julia isn’t ready yet. Against Dr. Cameron’s advice, Gilly has continued to manage the shop, but she’s committed to quitting after two more months, no matter what Julia says.

She still has nightmares about finding Erik Ostrovsky in that awful little house. Sometimes he dies in her dreams, sometimes Gideon and Julia capture them both. Two people she loved and looked up to turned out to be monsters, and she will have to live with that. It will take time to trust her judgement again, but Dr. Cameron says there’s a way to come out of this with confidence and a clearer view of the world. There are times she feels like a traitor, but sometimes doing the right thing is painful. She accepts that now. She hopes her parents will accept it someday too, but for now they’re barely speaking to her. Dr. Cameron is helping her wrestle with that guilt. At least now that father is home all the time he can care for mother full time. Maybe this will bring her parents closer.

Today’s mail has brought a thick letter from Beaumont Delaney Minot, the law firm that stepped in after all the trouble in America. She wouldn’t have thought of hiring lawyers, but Erik Ostovsky’s guardian had insisted on setting up what he’d called “layers of protection” for her. Gilly wonders if she’d still be in the U.S. if not for them.

The envelope contains a brief note and a second letter from Andrew Torres. Also a cheque. Torres’s letter is long and detailed but the upshot is that Redwing - and Erik specifically - want to reward her for her part in the rescue. Torres notes that she has suffered financially and otherwise for her efforts and that Erik’s friends and guardians have a strong interest in ameliorating the damage.

The damage. That’s one way of saying that she’s lost her friends, will lose her job, and is likely disinherited. She should probably tear it up. Then again, it’s a tidy sum of money and if strange, terrible things happen, then it seems only fair that sometimes strange, pleasant things happen to redress the balance. She’ll keep the money and invest it in her future. Perhaps Julia will be persuaded to sell Charisma and Gilly can truly make it her own.

***

Pinker’s current cell is a hot, windowless, pale green box somewhere in the United States. First they’d locked him up in the Wayne County Jail, then Five Points Correctional, then an isolation cell in the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia with no access to books or a computer. He’s only spent a few days there before being forced into a kind of jail cell on wheels and transported to wherever he is now. He’s been in this cell for a week, maybe more. It’s hard to keep track when the light is always on. He’s pretty sure it’s still April, or is it May already? His captors don’t question him. In fact, they seem to know everything already, going back to his early experiments in Newcastle.

Nobody has spoken to Pinker in at least two days. Food is handed to him through a slot in the door. It never comes with a plate or utensils, nothing that could be used as a weapon. His one blanket is tear resistant. Pinker realizes that he will not lose his life any time soon, but he might lose his mind.

When two government agents arrive to make him an offer, Pinker jumps at the chance. He barely listens as they outline the terms.

***

Willard Madison’s job has been much easier and much less fun since Mr. Atcheson had his stroke. He doesn’t care for the old gentleman personally, of course, but he manages the caregivers, organizes visits and appointments, and stays in constant touch with Ronald Jr. The younger Atcheson is his boss now anyway. After that business with the ridiculous Golden Mu people and the ensuing investigation Ronald Sr.’s retirement had been formalized and enforced. The stroke hit the day after his son wrested the last bit of company control away from the father. The fight had been furious, but the younger man won.

Naturally Madison had told Ronald Jr. everything, and with his new approval cooperated fully with the F.B.I. Why not? Madison’s statement makes it clear that funding The Golden Mu was a personal project, and that Atcheson Sr. was using company resources without the knowledge of his sons or executives. The F.B.I. had wanted to talk to old Mr. Atcheson, of course, but at first he had refused and now he is incapable. He’s still as sharp as ever in some ways - Atcheson can see it in his eyes - but he can’t speak, or walk, or feed himself. He will die before the investigation concludes and then young Mr. Ronald will be the only Atcheson to reckon with. Madison looks forward to that day.

Not to say that young Ronald is without worries, even with his father under control. Madison keeps informed because it is his business to know everything about this family and because one day he expects to be working very closely with the chief heir. This is why he is aware of how annoying the IRS investigation has become; old Ronald had indulged in some truly silly, petty tax evasion for the pleasure of putting one over on the government, and now it’s the son’s headache. Madison also knows that brother Alan is on the verge of a third expensive divorce and that brother Andrew’s indulgence in prohibited substances has become more than a weekend hobby. He’s heard from the housekeeper that Ronald Jr.’s daughter, Jenna, is taking after her uncle that way, but he has yet to verify it. These are difficult times for the Atcheson family, but no matter; Willard Madison will always be there to help, as long as there’s someone to sign his cheque.

Chapter Text

If you want to disarm people, get yourself a cute, friendly dog or a hilarious toddler, but not both. When you have both people not only smile at you, they actually stop and chat. Andre has Miranda in her stroller, and Erik is walking Buddy, so together they are nearly irresistible. It’s not until they get to the park that they have a chance to really talk, which is the purpose of their outing. Marcus and Maribella are having a friendly grilling competition and Maddy is making the sides with Michael and Sarah, so they’ve been asked to get the dog and toddler out of the way. That’s the excuse, but by now everybody knows that Erik and Andre need to have their confidential talks. Andre has a long list of questions for this one.

To begin with, there’s Erik’s recovery from his ordeal. He looks good and he’d done well. Andre had noticed the straight-A report card on the Wattell fridge, and even if he hadn’t, his foster parents have done a bit of bragging. In addition to making the honour roll, Erik won grade awards for Mandarin and Acting, two areas of study entirely new to him, unless spy craft counts as acting. Andre is happy enough about this kind of credential-based success but his concern is with more delicate matters.

“Are you really doing okay? You seem to have thrown yourself into your work head first.”

“It was necessary, but I’m not ‘in denial’ as the expression goes. I’ve been working through things with Dr. Brock.”

“Successfully?”

Erik shrugs. “It’s a process. She gives me strategies, I practice them. It’s going to take a long time. That absurdity in March unearthed a lot of rotten old bones.”

“I bet it did. You’re doing okay, though?”

“Everyone says I’m coping remarkably well.”

That much is true. The rumours of a kidnapping in Lyons had gradually been downgraded to a missing person, then a runaway situation, and Erik’s name has been kept out of it so far. A few people outside the family circle had been given an abridged version of the truth. Sarah, Michael, Dr. Brock, Principal Harrison: they all credit him with great courage. His friends noticed that his temper was a little shorter than usual for a few weeks (or as Caleb said, ‘you’re being more of a dick than normal’), but they cut him sufficient slack. The really bad moments were unpredictable. He’d been hit with a wave of panic while having Seder dinner with J.T. 's family. Only Dr. Elkin (“call me Miriam”) had noticed and under her steady eye he’d powered through it. Outdoor Experience was tough, but the weekend gave him many chances to use his coping strategies and he’d come out of it stronger.

“What’s your assessment?”

“I’m managing. It’s a lot easier this time because I’m not on the run or a guest of the state. Stability helps, but it takes some getting used to, that’s all.”
Andre watches his daughter throw the ball for Buddy. Whether she manages to heft it eight feet away or drops it at her own feet, the dog gently drops it back in her hand.

“Do you think about revenge?”

“Of course.” Erik gives his guardian a sly smile. “You know, after I shot that bastard I had a moment to make a decision. I could have finished him off, taken out Pinker, and then ambushed Julia from the house. I had more than enough bullets.”

“And then you remembered the fine line between self-defence and a mad rampage of vengeance?”

“I remembered that I’m technically a child surrounded by protective dragons. I have no need to burn bridges these days.”

“Why should you, when you have Malcolm, and Doris, and Assiz?”

“And you, Andre. I know what you’re doing with Parthenon, and I approve.”

“If you don’t want to get your hands dirty, you probably don’t want to know what’s happening with the Golden Mu jerks.”

“Being the bigger man doesn’t mean willful ignorance. I’ll content myself with quarterly reports.”

“Then here’s a preview of the next one. Kevin Pinker killed himself in prison last week.”

Erik actually laughs. “Like hell he did.”

“Hmm. Malcolm agrees with you.”

“Of course he does. ‘Bugger that, get off the grass.’” Erik can’t quite manage Browning’s deep rumble, but the imitation is otherwise exact.

“I can see why the government would want to use him but it would be highly illegal.”

“The government doesn’t care. And it’s not like he’ll see the light of day again, even if wherever he is now isn’t technically a prison.”

“Grenfell and Fox-Devereux are in prison, and not enjoying it. So many obstacles standing between them and their civil rights. They just keep adding up.”

“It’s just the beginning of the end for them.” Miranda’s ball rolls to his feet. Erik picks it up and hands it to her with exaggerated politeness to make her giggle. “No aspersions to Dr. Brock, but knowing that my kidnappers are descending into hell is itself very therapeutic. I actually use the knowledge as part of my guided imagery.”

“And you’re content with that? Not seeking anything further afield?”

“Hmm? Oh, you mean Mortimer and his detective friend? No. They might have pointed The Golden Mu idiots at me, but only after I pointed at them through Cooper and Cooper. As long as they stay out of my way I can leave it at that. Let them be fancy boyfriends in London and go after lesser criminals.”

“Such growth, Mr. Ostrovsky.” Andre decides to drop the subject rather than mention something one of the Silver Birch office ladies had let slip, that one of Erik’s “relatives” in England had ordered a copy of the Guys and Dolls video.

“Indeed. See what a model citizen I am? See how good I look on paper? You must be so incredibly proud to have me as a ward.”

Andre snorts derisively, which is exactly the reaction Erik was aiming at. Still, Andre is pleased with Erik’s surface behaviour and (apparently) genuine appreciation for his family. There are two pink and white tree peonies flanking a bench in the Wattell garden, Erik’s Mother’s Day gift to Maddy. Marcus said that since he got his license, Erik has been helpful with errands almost to the point of officiousness, not that he had used that word. Erik needs to take action, so they let him take action. Besides, the kid is a careful, confident driver and the minivan has already survived the two Wattell kids.

Miranda is getting bored so they decide to make a full round of the park and have her meet the geese and ducks. Andre puts his daughter back in her “taxi” and they resume their walk.

“Hey, are you going to be at the cabin for Father’s Day? What’s the plan?”

“We already gave Marcus his gift. I got him a bread of the month to accompany Sarah’s cheese of the month and Michael’s wine of the month. You see the theme.”

“Did you plan that?”

“We planned it together. We’ll all be going to the cabin next week, but then I’m going to Vermont with Kate Liu for Michael’s official opening, then back to the cabin. Michael and Sarah will be in and out all summer, so I’ll see them when I see them.”

“Who all is going to France, or have you figured that out?”

“Maddy and Marcus are taking me to Paris, then Maddy is meeting with her publisher and Marcus will drop me off in Brest. Don’t want to miss the maritime festival.”

“Ah. That is quite the attraction.”

“It will be very good to see Noelle again. She’s made a lot of plans.”

“And then you come to New York in August, just in time for the peak humidity.”

“Just in time for Caleb’s birthday. I owe him that. And I’m curious to see what kind of place his mother has picked out. I’m hoping for something extravagant and extremely feminine. He’d hate that. And there’s something I haven’t mentioned: Michael and Rosalie Sharkey will be in town getting their youngest daughter settled at Columbia.”

“Michael Sharkey? Oh, right. You’re going to meet him?”

“Yes. In character, of course. I’ll be very discreet.”

“Sure, why not? Your old buddy would appreciate that. Columbia is a good school.”

“Columbia law, no less. Apparently Sabra wants to be a public defender. I can’t decide if that’s ironic or merely fitting.”

“That’s a lot of travel for a single summer.”

“I suppose. I’m still trying to arrange a side trip to England.”

Andre cannot hide his displeasure at that. “What on earth for? I thought you had given up on Blake and Mortimer.”

“Not them. I want to visit Tommy Delaney in Surrey. He’s getting old and I might not have another chance.”

“If he’s as sharp as you say he is, you’ll have to be careful.”

“He’ll figure it out in a minute. I don’t mind. Tommy has been holding my secrets for fifty years. And I want to see London as a tourist. I’m very curious to see how it feels to walk about freely in that city.”

“I’ve never been, but I’ve heard it’s a great place to visit.”

“I hope to find out. There are a number of places I want to revisit as a civilian. Japan, naturally. I’d like to see the Mitsumotos again soon.* Greece, Germany, maybe even Egypt. Now that would be a test. How do you feel about accompanying me to Japan, just the two of us?”

“Are you serious?”

“You are my guardian, Andre, you might as well get some perks out of it. You’ll have to take me for college visits soon anyway.”

“Very soon. Wow. You must be thinking about that all the time now.”

“Starting to. With Michael and Sarah traipsing all over the world, I was thinking I might want to stick close to home at first. Columbia, maybe Cornell? Or I could study abroad. Study what, though? There are so many intriguing options.”

“You can afford to play with that a bit.”

“I can. I could become a bush pilot for that matter. I could join the space program, which is actually very appealing.”

“Sure, if you want to scare the bejesus out your whole family”

“Or I could study languages and archeology, maybe do some writing. There must be some legitimate niche where my abilities can be put to use.”

“There are ways to live an adventurous life without skirting the law. You’ll see.”

“I’ve noticed that. Such a variety of ways to get into trouble apart from outright criminality. You have many late night emergency calls to look forward to.”

“Jesus. Fine. As long as you make an attempt to stay safe.”

“And stay free, which is much more important.”

Andre knows better than to argue, and Miranda is loudly listing all the things she wants for dinner. They leave the park and head home where loved ones are waiting.