Chapter 1: The Private Detective
A woman's silhouette hesitated in the frosted glass of my office door, and then the handle turned and the door cracked open. I stood up to greet the client.
She was slender, thirty-something, a redhead with wary blue eyes. She wore a fitted pea-green suit with a matching pillbox hat, in the newest retro style. From the quality of the clothes, I guessed she was in a much higher income bracket than my regular clientele. She shook the hand I offered; her grip was delicate.
"I'm Victor Mansfield," I introduced myself, though she'd certainly seen my name on the door when she came in. Victor Mansfield, Confidential Investigations - that's been my line for ten years now.
"I'm Sarah Miller," she replied, letting go of my hand quickly to clutch at her handbag. She spoke quietly, but with an edge of defiance. "I have a job for you."
"That's why people usually come here." I sat down, motioning her to do the same. "What's your problem?"
"It's a missing person."
"How long has this person been missing? Have the police given up searching?" I've occasionally taken that sort of case - a child has been missing for months, the police have more or less given up for lack of any leads, and the parents are desperate to see that something is still being done. Those cases are depressing, and not one has ever had a happy ending.
"I'm not sure," she replied, staring down at her lap. "Two weeks? The police aren't involved."
"Listen, Ms. Miller, I'd love to do business with you," I said, "but I think you should go to the police first. This is their domain."
She shook her head. "It's a bit... complicated. This person - well, he's not officially missing. It's just..." She raised her head and met my eyes. "He's my lover." She paused, as though expecting me to comment or to indicate shock. I'd noticed her wedding band of course, but I had nothing to say about it. "I haven't heard from him in two weeks," she went on. "I've left dozens of messages on his cell phone, I've sent emails, I even went to his house once but he wasn't there. I'm afraid something's happened to him. But I can't go to the police with this; my husband can't find out, and anyway I don't have anything to tell them, just that my lover hasn't called me for two weeks. That wouldn't be enough for them to start an investigation, would it?"
I shook my head. "I guess not. Not if that's all you have."
She opened her handbag, and took out a couple photos and a folded piece of paper. "Here's a couple pictures of Joey, and I've written down his address and phone number and where he works." She handed the stuff to me. I glanced at the pictures; this Joey was an average-looking white guy in his thirties, with thinning brown hair, silver-rimmed glasses and a close-cropped goatee. The two pictures seemed to have been taken on the same day, in some park in the autumn.
"Mr. Mansfield, you have to understand that my husband can't find out about this," she stressed again. I heard her tight, desperate tone and drew a few conclusions. This woman was scared of her husband, and like most women who feel that way, she probably was justified. Furthermore, I'd bet my next rent payment that she was worried her husband had something to do with the disappearance of the lover.
It sounded messy.
She must have sensed my hesitation; next thing I knew, she was pulling a wad of cash out of her purse and slapping it down on the desk. I raised an eyebrow; it looked like they were all fifties, and by the size of the stack I'd say I was looking at a thousand dollars, right there on my desk.
Frankly, this didn't put me at ease.
"I can afford to pay you well for your discretion," she said. "My husband is very wealthy, and my allowance is generous."
"I need to check my schedule with my secretary," I said, and slipped out into the reception room, shutting my office door behind me. "Rosemary," I whispered, "I'm being offered a touchy case, and a lot of money. How badly do I need it?"
Rosemary was my 22-year-old secretary. If you're thinking "sleazy sex on the desk when business is slow," think again. Rosemary was a 5-foot-10, 200 pound hard-core bull dyke, and she moonlighted as a professional dom. She was also the best damn secretary I'd ever had, and I lived in constant dread of the day her dungeon would start paying for itself and she'd leave me.
Rosemary grunted and pulled up an accounting sheet on the computer, tilting the screen so I could see. "Rent's due next week," she said, tapping the screen with an accusing pencil. "Hydro bill's two weeks overdue. Insurance payment's a month and a half overdue." She swivelled in her chair to fix me with a glare. "And my pay-day's Friday."
"Your pay comes before anything else," I assured her. "Who needs electricity?" I value my balls, y'know?
"One other thing." She plucked an opened business envelope from the desk in front of her, and flapped it in the air. "This is from Blood & Associates. Your last child-support cheque bounced."
I groaned. "Shit. How'd that happen? I know there was enough money for that."
Rosemary shook her head. "Not after you paid for the repairs to the pickup." She tilted her head, giving me a sympathetic look; her facial piercings glinted in a sunbeam. "Why don't you just demand a fucking paternity test?"
I set my jaw. "Not doing it, Rosemary."
"Then at least demand visitation rights. What kind of idiot are you, paying to raise someone else's kid, and you've never even met him?"
"It's none of your business Rosemary," I said tightly.
"Yeah, OK." She held up her hands, abdicating all responsibility - at least 'till the next time she brought it up. "You're the nicest, stupidest man in the whole fucking world, you know that? So the answer is yes, you gotta take this case."
"Right." I took a deep breath, and walked back into the office to face the future.
I started looking for Joey - Joseph Conner was his full name - at his place of work, which was the math department at the University of Toronto. I hoped this would be quick and easy - maybe I'd find Joey himself there. There are lots of reasons a man might stop calling his illicit lover, and most of them are sordid but not sinister.
The secretary working at the desk was a matronly black woman with a friendly face.
"I'm looking for Professor Joseph Conner," I told her.
"I'm sorry," she said, "he doesn't have any teaching duties this summer, and we don't expect to see him 'till the fall. You can leave a message, but sometimes he doesn't check in for months. I haven't heard from him since the end of April."
I decided to leave a message with my number, and instructions to call it - with luck, Joey might yet solve the case of his own disappearance, quick and easy. Once the secretary took the note, I asked if I could look in his office. "He borrowed a book from me," I explained.
The secretary looked doubtful. "No offence, but how would I know the book is yours? I don't think I can let you into his office without his permission."
"Tell you what," I bargained, "I won't take anything at all. I just want to make sure he has my book, and then I'll be happy."
The secretary tilted her head, thinking about it. "Well, that would probably be all right. Neda!" she called to a young woman who was just walking by. Neda looked about twenty; she was wearing a long dress, and a hijab. "Neda, would you take this gentleman to Professor Conner's office and let him look around, and make sure he doesn't take anything?"
Neda looked surprised, and a bit amused. "Sure, no problem," she said. The secretary gave her a key ring, and she led me away.
"So, you work here?" I asked her as we walked to Joey's office.
"I'm a grad student."
"Do you know Professor Conner?"
"I took a class from him last term, on analytic number theory."
I nodded sagely. Last math I took was in high school, and I hated that. "What did you think of him?"
"He was a really good prof. The class was well organized. The take-home was a killer, though."
"Is he well-liked around here?" I wondered whether professional competition between mathematicians ever got deadly. It didn't seem likely, but people get funny about their passions.
"His students like him OK, I guess," she said with a shrug. "I wouldn't know about the other profs. Here we are." She unlocked the office door, and let me in.
The office held bookshelves, filing cabinets, a chair, and a couple desks, one of which had a computer on it. The whole place was pretty neat - the way someone might leave their office when they were going away for a while.
I poked around as much as I could in under a minute, supposedly looking for my book. I didn't turn up anything useful.
"I guess he didn't have it," I told Neda with a shrug. "Sorry to bother you."
So, the guy's workplace was a dead end. No one had seen Joey for a month, but apparently this was normal in his line of work. Wish I had a job like that.
I tried his home next. He lived in a townhouse. The front door had a mail slot; I peeked through it, and saw a pretty big pile of mail lying there on the floor. His car was parked in his driveway, but that didn't mean he hadn't decided to leave town by train, say, or by plane, or in someone else's car.
I tried talking to the neighbours next. Most of them knew him by sight, a few of them knew him to say 'hi' to. No one had seen him in weeks, but no one thought that was odd.
I didn't have the authority to enter his house for a search, so there wasn't much more I could learn in his neighbourhood at that point. I had established, pretty certainly, that Joey hadn't been home for weeks - but I hadn't found any leads on where he was, nor had I managed to find any evidence that his disappearance was suspicious.
I had a hunch that the clues in this case might be in another neighbourhood entirely.
I borrowed a dog from a friend, and drove out to Oakville, the ritzy suburb where Sarah Miller and her husband lived. I was decked head to toe in suburban camouflage - yuppie clothes. I parked my truck several blocks away from the Millers' residence, and got out to walk the dog.
The dog's name was Sandy. She was a beautiful golden lab, and I'd borrowed her for this sort of purpose before. Walking a dog is a nice, inconspicuous way to scope out a neighbourhood.
When we were in front of the Millers' place itself, I got Sandy's attention and told her "Do your business, girl." She was actually trained to that command; she settled right down to sniffing out a good spot, and taking care of business. Meanwhile, I had a perfectly good excuse to stand there beside her, gazing around at everything but the dog and looking sort of awkward.
The Millers' place was three stories, ground-level entry, with a two car garage facing the front. The large front lawn was stylishly just a little bit unkempt. I could see around the house to where their property adjoined another in back, with no lane in between. Across the street, more houses. There was no good cover. The houses were all very big and expensive looking, and far apart. I'd guess that not one on the street would sell for less than a million.
I heard a car slowing down and pulling up to the curb behind me and I turned to see a black limousine. The driver was impassive, and the windows of the passenger section were black. If there was anyone in there, they could see me and I couldn't see them. This made me uncomfortable.
I grinned at the driver and waved the plastic baggy I was holding, to indicate 'Hey buddy don't worry, I'll clean up after the dog.' By then Sandy had woofed her satisfaction; I stooped down and bagged the dog shit, keeping half an eye on the limo. The limo's engine shut down, the driver continued to sit in his seat like a mannequin, and there was no sign of life from the back.
Calling Sandy to heel, I strode quickly away. For as long as I stayed in earshot, no doors opened or closed.
I did not have a good feeling about that limo.
I returned Sandy to her owner, then spent a couple hours at the office making phone calls.
I managed to get in touch with Joey's one surviving relative, an uncle living in California. Not only had he not heard from Joey in the past two weeks, he hadn't heard from Joey for two and a half years - the last contact had been a Christmas card Joey sent him, in December of 2005. The uncle couldn't give me any current info about Joey at all - he hadn't even remembered Joey was working at the University of Toronto. That was a real dead end.
Then I tried to get access to some of Joey's private information. There are certain things that you shouldn't be able to find out about people that sometimes you can find out anyway, if you ask nicely. Unfortunately, most of the service reps I talked to that afternoon had been well versed in client privacy. I couldn't find out whether Joey had made any purchases with his credit cards in the past two weeks, nor whether he had used his debit card or accessed his bank account, nor whether he had used his cell phone.
Finally I hit pay dirt. Sort of. I realized that the U of T math department probably had its own systems administrator. I called the department, asked to talk to the sys admin, and was put through to a woman named Carla. I told Carla the truth - that I was a private detective investigating the possible disappearance of Joseph Conner. I asked her whether he had an account on one of her servers - of course he did. I asked when was the last time he'd accessed it. She told me - the 19th of May, at 11:34 am. That was two weeks ago, plus a day. I asked her whether it was unusual for him to go so long without accessing his account. She took a moment to call up his user data, and told me yes - in the five years since he'd joined the department, he'd never gone more than 48 hours without logging in. I thanked her, and said goodbye.
It wasn't enough to go to the police with, not yet. But it was something to show for a day's work.
I sent Rosemary home and went out for a drink.
I got home around 7 p.m., carrying grocery bags. I went through the usual inelegant process of getting my keys out while not letting the groceries spill all over the floor. I stuck the key in the lock and tried to turn it.
The door was unlocked.
I put my grocery bags down softly. One tipped over, and oranges rolled out across the floor; I let them go. I drew my gun, stood to the side of the door, and reached over with my spare hand to turn the knob and ease the door open just a crack. I waited a moment. Nothing stirred. In one quick movement, I side-stepped into the doorway and kicked the door open, pointing my gun in front of me. I swept the room; nothing, nobody. Cautious, holding my gun at the ready, I tiptoed in. Moving silently, I checked the rest of my apartment.
There was no one anywhere, and then I came to my bedroom. What I saw there made my heart leap into my throat and my whole world start to spin.
Lying on my pillow was a long-stemmed white rose.
Chapter 2: A White Rose For Friendship
"Vic!" Li Ann's eyes widened. "This is a surprise."
No kidding. Li Ann and I had sort of drifted apart in the years since we left the Agency; these days, we barely managed a couple phone calls a year. We didn't have much in common anymore. About a year after the end of our time at the Agency, she married a wealthy investment broker. He was a good guy and I could see that he and she were honestly in love. These days she ran a private art gallery and organized prestigious charity functions, and she lived with her husband in a $600K condo downtown. Me, I was a low-class private detective who couldn't afford to pay his rent and his child support. Not that she looked down on me, you understand - Li Ann wasn't like that. I just didn't feel comfortable around her anymore.
Her gaze fell to the white rose I was holding, and she started with a confused yet polite "Is that for me? You shouldn't have-" speech, but I cut her off.
"I always gave you red roses, remember?"
"Of course. But then what-" She frowned, puzzled. "Is this about Mac?"
"I was hoping maybe you could tell me. Have you heard from him, Li Ann?"
She shook her head. "Not since the day the Director died. Why don't you come in?"
She led me inside, leaning heavily on her cane as she walked.
Li Ann's knee got smashed up when the building collapsed on her, Mac and me at the end of our last mission together. She never complained about it - she knew how lucky we all were just to be alive.
Mac was the luckiest of all - he escaped with minor cuts and bruises. I was the most seriously injured at the time, though unlike Li Ann I eventually recovered completely. I don't even remember the explosion - something hit me on the head, hard. I was in a coma for two days. When I came out of it, the Director was dead, and Mac and Jackie had vanished into thin air.
The Director's death hit Li Ann and me pretty hard. It was so senseless. She'd been shot, of course, but the bullet had only grazed her. A few stitches, and she'd been fine. Then she stayed in the hospital with us all night, hoping I'd wake up. She finally left at about 6 am. Then, driving home, she fell asleep at the wheel. The car crashed and she was killed.
By 8 am that same day, Mac and Jackie had faded away into the shadows. I guess they figured it was their one chance to escape the Agency. Maybe they were right, maybe not. Li Ann was retired from the Agency after that because of her injury. I was retired because there was no team left, and my Director was dead, and they - the mysterious They - decided I was too old to start again on a new team with a new Director.
Ten years later, I still felt cold at the depth of Mac's betrayal. We'd been lovers, the last few months at the Agency. I'd been in love with him, and thought he felt the same for me. Then, in an instant, he was gone - at that point he couldn't even have known that I would survive, yet he left. He didn't even write me a note. And I never heard from him, or of him, again.
And now, a mysterious white rose.
Li Ann led me into the living room, and we both sat down on the black leather sofa. She took the rose from me and twirled the stem between her thumb and forefinger, gazing at the bloom. Then she looked up at me. "So, what's going on?"
"When I got home tonight, my apartment was unlocked. No one was there, nothing was taken, nothing was out of place - and that," I nodded towards the rose "was on my pillow."
Li Ann stared at the rose for a moment. "I haven't heard from Mac since the Director died," she said slowly, "but something strange happened a couple months ago. A woman rang my doorbell around one in the morning. She'd been beaten up by her husband - she had a black eye, a cut lip, a few other bruises. She wasn't a total stranger, actually - I knew her to see her, we'd been involved in a couple charity functions together. She didn't know my name at the time though, or where I lived. A man, a stranger, had brought her to my door and left her there." Li Ann handed the rose back to me. "From her description of the stranger, I wondered if it might have been Mac."
My heart started to beat a little faster. "Could you get in touch with her again?"
"Sure." Li Ann smiled. "We've become friends, actually. I wish I could get her to leave her husband, but at least I can usually convince her to come over here when he's in a bad mood. Her name is Sarah Miller. I'll get you her phone number."
"Don't bother," I said. "I already have it."
I don't believe in coincidences, and it already looked like this wasn't one.
Li Ann was startled. "How do you know Sarah?"
"She came to my office yesterday, and hired me to work on a case."
"Hm. That's strange," Li Ann said, furrowing her brow. "Of course I've mentioned you to her, but she never said she was planning to go to you. What sort of case?"
"I can't say, sorry - private information, you know? Maybe she'd tell you if you asked her," I suggested.
Li Ann nodded. "I think I will."
This was an unexpected turn of events; suddenly Li Ann herself was the best lead I had on my new case. Not that I could see any connection yet between the hints that Mac was around and the disappearance of Joey Conner, but the rose had appeared the day I started looking for Joey. Like I said, I don't believe in coincidences. "What can you tell me about her husband?"
"Marcus? I've met him only a couple times." Li Ann grimaced. "You can guess why I don't like him. He's an overbearing, jealous, brutal sort of man. That's just with Sarah of course - he's perfectly polite in public."
"What does he do?" Sarah had seemed very reluctant to talk about her husband, and I'd decided not to press her on our first meeting.
"Something in the diamond trade," Li Ann told me. "Other precious jewels too, but mostly diamonds. He's some sort of buyer. I'm not sure of the details, but obviously they do well by it."
"Sarah doesn't work?"
Li Ann shook her head. "I've even offered her a job in my gallery, just to let her get out of the house - but Marcus won't let her work, and she won't stand up to him."
Just then, I heard the front door open and close.
"That must be Tony," Li Ann said. Tony was her husband. A moment later, he walked into the room.
"Hi Vic," he said, looking surprised and pleased to see me. "It's been a while." I stood up to shake his hand, and then he leaned over to give Li Ann a kiss, and murmured something in Cantonese. Probably something indecent - she blushed, smiled, and gave him a mock punch in the gut, telling him to be polite and speak English while I was there.
Tony was a first generation Chinese-Canadian; his parents had immigrated as adults, and he'd been born here. He was a bit short, and balding, and his ears stuck out - he wasn't the most beautiful man in the world. But he and Li Ann were so obviously still in love, and coming near their tenth anniversary; I really was happy for her. Seeing them just made me feel so alone.
"I should be going," I said. "I might call you later with more questions, Li Ann."
"Wait, Vic," she said, holding a hand out to stop me. "I'm really glad you came over - I was going to call you soon, anyway. Tony and I have some good news. You know how we've been trying to adopt a baby?"
I nodded, feeling my lips twitching into a grin as I anticipated her news. Li Ann couldn't have a baby herself - she was sterile as a result of an infection she'd caught during her short time in the brothel when she was a child. She'd told me about that back when we were engaged. She and Tony had been going through the arduous process of trying to arrange an international adoption for a couple of years now.
"The rest of the paperwork has finally come through - just three days ago," Li Ann said. She and Tony were both beaming at me now. "In two weeks we're flying to China, to pick up our little girl from the orphanage!"
"That's wonderful," I said, meaning it. "I can't think of anyone who deserves this more than you do."
At that point I had to stay, of course, to share a celebratory glass of wine with them. I joked that Li Ann shouldn't be drinking while she was expecting a baby, and was rewarded with a poke in the ribs right where I'm ticklish. My wine glass slipped from my fingers when Li Ann tickled me, and I just barely managed to catch it again before it smashed on the floor. This manoeuvre ended with me sprawled on the floor holding the intact glass like a trophy, and Li Ann and Tony laughing and applauding.
I hadn't felt so happy and comfortable with Li Ann for a long time.
Finally I did leave. Li Ann saw me to the door.
I walked out the door, and a feeling hit me. I spun around and stopped her from closing the door. "Li Ann," I said quietly, "Do you still have a license to carry a concealed weapon?"
She bit her lip. "Yes," she said, just as quiet. "I haven't carried a gun for years, though."
"Maybe you should start again. Just for now."
She looked worried. "What aren't you telling me, Vic?"
"Nothing specific." I shrugged. "Just a feeling about this case I'm working for Sarah. Humour me, OK?"
"OK Vic. And you be careful out there." She kissed me goodbye on the cheek, and I left.
"So what have you found?" Sarah asked. I was sitting behind my desk, and she was sitting in the chair in front of it.
"Not much yet," I confessed. It was the afternoon of the day after I'd found the rose. "No one at the math department or in his neighbourhood has seen Joey for at least two weeks, but no one finds that unusual. The one suspicious thing that turned up was that he hasn't logged on to the server at school for more than two weeks - the sys admin said he's never been offline for so long before. That's probably not enough to go to the police with yet - though it might be if you'd also tell them about your relationship with him, and how he hasn't been in touch with you."
Sarah shook her head almost violently. "No! No one but you knows about me and Joey. It would be very, very bad if Marcus found out."
"All right," I said, holding my hands up, "that's your call. It would help if you could give me more info. For instance, you didn't give me the names of any of his friends last time."
Sarah shrugged. "Joey's two closest friends are both out of the country this year. I don't know any of the others."
"Well, tell me how to get in touch with them anyway," I said with a bit of a sigh. "It's possible he's contacted them, right?"
She read me names and phone numbers from a book in her handbag, and I took them down. One was in Germany, the other in Scotland.
Then I had another question for her. I flipped over an 8x10 photo which had been lying face down on my desk. "Do you recognize this man?" I asked. It was a picture of Mac.
"Yes," she said immediately, then frowned. "I don't know from where."
I handed the photo to her so she could look at it more closely. "I visited Li Ann last night," I mentioned, casually.
"Yes, I know, she phoned me after. Thanks for not telling her about Joey," Sarah said. Then she gasped. "Oh! This is the jewel thief!"
"The jewel thief?" I repeated. It had to be Mac. Once a thief....
Sarah frowned, and squinted a bit at the picture. "Well, maybe. He was older than this guy, though."
"The picture's ten years old," I said. "How did you meet him?"
She laid the picture on the desk, and sat back in the chair with a fragile smile. "Well, that's sort of a funny story. See, he was burgling us. We were home at the time - Marcus and me, I mean. He was very quiet - we had no idea he was there. We weren't so quiet. We were having a bit of an argument, you know? And Marcus gets kind of passionate."
"Li Ann's told me about what Marcus does to you," I interrupted, a bit harshly.
"He doesn't mean to," Sarah said very quietly. Her gaze fell to her lap, and she started twisting the strap of her handbag between her fingers. "Anyway, that night, things got a bit intense. I guess I screamed a bit. Then the doorbell rang. It was after midnight, so Marcus knew it had to be important. He went to get the door. As soon as he was gone, a man came into the room where I was. That man." She tapped the picture of Mac. "He was dressed all in black. He had a nice smile and he spoke to me gently, so I wasn't afraid of him. He helped me sneak out of the back door, really quickly, before Marcus came back. I asked him what he'd been doing in our house. He said he'd been trying to steal some diamonds." Sarah gave a bitter little laugh. "I said I didn't care, and I promised not to tell on him. Then he said he'd take me to a women's shelter. I begged him not to, I threatened to scream again. He said OK, he'd take me to a woman who he knew would take me in for the night. And that was Li Ann." She picked up the photo again. "Where did you get this? Do you think he has something to do with Joey?"
"I don't know what he has to do with anything, yet," I said, and that was the truth. "But he and Li Ann and I were good friends a long, long time ago."
The next day, I started a new phase of the investigation. I'd been getting nowhere looking for Joey. Now I started looking for Mac.
I visited twenty-five flower shops that day, showing around a picture of Mac and asking "Did this man buy a white rose from you recently?" Negative. The next day, I visited twenty-three more, and went back to six of the originals (to catch people working other shifts). Still nothing, and that pretty much exhausted the possibilities of Toronto's flower shops.
The day after that, I decided to try a slightly different tactic - I started making the rounds of music shops.
At the eighteenth shop, I hit the jackpot. "Sure, he's been here," said a clerk with a purple mohawk and more facial piercings than my secretary Rosemary had. "Actually, he ordered a CD here last week; he should be by today or tomorrow to pick it up."
My pulse started racing. "Could I buy a copy of the same CD?"
"Sure," the clerk said, "We ordered a couple."
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention this to him," I mentioned while I was paying.
"Hey, it's none of my business, man," the clerk agreed.
I parked my truck up a side street with a view of the music store, and settled into stakeout mode. I slipped the CD into my player, and hit 'play.'
This was very strange. I hadn't heard from him in ten years - and now I was hearing this music he'd decided to buy last week.
It was darker and more melodic than the music he used to love, but still very electronic. There was a female vocalist with a husky voice, and the words didn't say anything in particular.
I listened to the CD over and over, as Mac failed to show up. After the store closed I went home, only to return just before it opened the next morning. I kept playing that same damn CD, though by then I knew every track by heart. I had this superstitious feeling that listening to his music would link me to him, so that he'd be sure to come by and I'd be sure to spot him.
Around quarter to noon, I saw him.
I knew him immediately. It had been 10 years, and he was wearing sunglasses, but I knew him immediately by the way he moved. There'd been a time when we were so in tune with each other that I could sense his movements without even looking at him, just from the tension in the air between us.
He stayed in the store for about twenty minutes. When he came out again I hopped out of my truck and followed him on foot, at a distance of about fifty meters. Any more than that and I would have lost him in the crowds; I was lucky he was tall.
His haircut was the same as the last time I saw him. He was wearing baggy dark slacks, and an army green t-shirt. The shirt was tight enough that I could tell, even at my following distance, that he was still in great shape.
He went down into the subway; I followed. When the train came I got into the car adjacent to his. I could just see him through the windows between cars, so I saw where he got off. That was a touchy bit of the tail operation, but luckily he turned his back to me when he got off, heading for the exit at the near end of the station. I found my distance again and followed him out, and along one more city street, until finally he entered a posh hotel, the Royal George. Loitering across the street, I saw him speak briefly to the clerk at the reception desk. Then he disappeared from my sight.
I walked right into the lobby and strode purposefully to the desk. "I'm looking for a friend of mine," I said to the clerk.
"Ah, you must be Vic," the clerk said with a smile.
I blinked. "That's right," I said.
"Your friend just told me you'd be here. He said to go right up." She pointed at the elevators. "He's in room 814."
Chapter 3: Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot?
As I rode the elevator to the eighth floor of the hotel, it occurred to me that this might be a trap.
Yes, I had trusted Mac ten years ago. I'd thought I knew him pretty well. I had loved him. But then he'd left when the Director died, while I was in the hospital in a coma, and that changed everything. I couldn't trust anything I thought I knew about him.
All I knew of him now was that an emotionally disturbed woman claimed he'd taken a break from burgling her house to save her from her husband, and that he'd turned up - after ten years! - the very day I started investigating the disappearance of Joey Conner.
All the cautious thoughts in the world couldn't have stopped me from walking into room 814, but I touched my gun in its holster before I knocked on the door.
"Come in!" Mac called through the closed door. I shivered at the strange and familiar sound of his voice. It had been so long.
I opened the door and walked in.
And found myself staring down the barrel of a gun.
Mac lowered the gun immediately. "Sorry about that," he said. "I had to make sure it was you."
"Most people just use the peephole," I remarked acidly, hoping to cover the moment of panic I'd felt.
"I saw a guy shot through a peephole once," he said, tucking the gun away in a pocket of his pants. "So. Well. Hi, Vic. Why don't you shut the door."
I shut the door. There was an awkward silence while we sized each other up.
He hadn't changed much, to look at. The lines on his face ran a bit deeper. He had crows' feet at the outside corners of his eyes. His hair was still thick and dark - my own had gone to salt and pepper. His build was still sleek and muscular. I knew I hadn't changed much either, other than the hair. I worked out to keep in shape. I'd experimented with beards over the years, but I was back to a clean shave at the moment.
Mac had somehow found time to change his shirt since he got to the hotel room; he was wearing a long-sleeved blue silk shirt with black buttons. Dressing up for me? God only knew.
"What do you know about Joey Conner?" I asked.
Mac frowned slightly. "Nothing. Who the fuck is he?"
"Sarah Miller's lover."
"Oh. Her, I know." He gave me a puzzled look. Maybe this wasn't the conversation he'd imagined having at our 10-year reunion.
"Yes. You met her while you were robbing her house, and you took her to Li Ann."
"Right." He tilted his head slightly, still looking puzzled. "How is Sarah?"
"Not so good. She's still with her husband, and now her lover's vanished into thin air. I'm trying to find him, or at least find enough suspicious details so I can go to the police and get them to look for him."
"So you're not back with the police, yourself," he surmised.
"Nah. My drug conviction never did get overturned." I shrugged as if I didn't care. "I'm a private detective now. What can ya do?"
I glanced around the room we were in. It was fairly large. There was one bed, a double; it was made, but not neatly. There were clothes and small personal possessions scattered around. There was a desk with some papers on it and a laptop computer sitting there closed. There was a table with two armchairs by it, in front of a big bay window with a nice view of downtown. On the table was what looked like the remains of day-old Chinese takeout. The room looked pretty well lived in.
"How long have you been in Toronto?" I asked. "Why are you here?"
"About a week and a half, this time," he said. "And I guess Sarah's told you what line of work I'm in. How the hell did you find me?"
I smirked. "I showed your photo at nearly every music store in town."
The corner of his mouth twitched. "Clever," he conceded.
"I tried the flower stores first, but no one I talked to remembered you. I lost two whole days at that," I admitted.
He laughed. "Less clever. Music, sure - you knew my addiction. But why would you start with florists?"
I prickled a bit. He had no right to tease me at this point. "Well, I figured you'd bought it here in the city."
" 'It'?" he repeated.
He still looked blank.
"The white rose you left on my pillow five days ago," I said very slowly and distinctly.
He shook his head. "I didn't leave you a rose. I don't even know where you live."
I was confused. If he hadn't left the rose... "Then who put it there?"
Mac shrugged. "Maybe you have a secret admirer."
"One who picks locks?"
"Sounds like your type," Mac said with a smirk - and then his expression froze, went blank, like maybe he'd just realized what a fucked up, stupid thing he'd just said.
We weren't going there. Not yet.
Mac spoke quickly to change the subject. "So what's the deal with this Joey Conner?"
"You really don't know anything?"
He gave a wry grin. "Sarah and I aren't exactly tight, y'know. I didn't even know she was having an affair."
"But you do know some things about her, and her husband?"
"A few things," he admitted.
"Do you think Marcus might kill Joey if he found out about the affair?" That was the theory that had been at the back of my mind all along, mostly because I suspected it was the theory at the back of Sarah's.
"Or have him killed. Yeah, I could see him doing that." Mac looked darkly off into space for a moment. Then his expression brightened, and he looked at me. "So here you are. You look good."
"Um," I said, shifting my feet.
"How's Li Ann doing these days?"
"Pretty good. We both got retired from the Agency. I was too old, and her knee was messed up permanently."
"I know all that," Mac said impatiently. "I've been keeping tabs on her when I can."
Of course. He'd taken Sarah to Li Ann's condo - he obviously knew where Li Ann lived, and that she was married, and probably everything else that could be read in the papers.
"Well. She's happy now."
He gave a funny sort of smile, sort of relieved and regretful at the same time. "That's good."
"You kept tabs on her, but not on me?" I knew I was treading on dangerous ground here... but how could we finally meet, and not talk about this?
"I kept an eye on you too at first." He looked away from me; he turned around and walked towards the bay window and stood there, apparently fascinated by the scenery. "Then I heard you'd got married. I didn't feel like knowing much after that."
"I'm divorced now," I said.
"Sorry to hear it," he replied. There was no particular emotion in his tone.
And that was when the red-hot rage hit me.
"What did you fucking expect?!!" I shouted. He turned around to face me with a tired, sad expression, and I didn't care what he was feeling. "You left! The Director died and you just left! I was in a fucking coma!" I clenched my fists. My whole body quivered with the rage and hurt of ten years. "You didn't even leave a note! I tried to find you - for months I tried - and I never found a trace of you! And you were 'keeping an eye on' me?! Well fuck you! FUCK YOU!!!"
I flew at Mac with the general intent to tear him limb from limb. He didn't move quickly enough to get away. We fell together to the floor with me on top, trying to pummel him, and him just barely managing to deflect most of the blows. He didn't really fight back, he just kept trying to pin me. My rage gave me strength. The fight was a blur, until I found myself pinning him to the floor in a painful arm lock, panting hard.
"You're going to break my arm," he gasped, his voice tight with pain.
"I don't care," I hissed, but I let him go anyway. He scrambled quickly out of my reach. We squatted on the floor, facing each other a couple meters away, breathing hard.
His shirt was ripped open, and pulled halfway off his left shoulder.
Somehow, my gaze wandered down from his face to his bare chest, now revealed. It was a long time since I'd seen him like this. My eyes focused on a roundish pale pink spot on his chest, just over his heart. That hadn't been there ten years ago. That was scar tissue.
I crept towards him. He watched me warily, but didn't move away. Without saying a word I circled around behind him, and tugged his shirt down further so I could see his back. There was a matching scar there, bigger than the one on his chest, a bit jagged. Entry wound, exit wound. I put my hands on his shoulders, and got him to turn around to face me. "Holy shit," I said softly, "you were shot right through the heart! How are you not dead?"
He gave a wary half smile. "Damn lucky, I guess. It happened in Antwerp. One of the top heart surgeons in the world was working in the hospital there, and I was shot practically on the hospital's front doorstep. He did some pretty amazing reconstructive surgery."
I parted the thick hair on his chest, and could just make out thin white lines in an inverted T - the scars of open heart surgery. I felt giddy at this long-belated discovery of Mac's near death experience. "When did it happen?"
"Seven years ago," he said. "Summer of 2001."
"What day?" I asked.
He gave me a quizzical look. "June 14th. Why?"
"That's the day I got married."
We stared at each other for a moment, taking in the cosmic significance of that.
Then I kissed him.
He was shocked, I guess, but only for a moment. Then his lips parted and let my tongue in. My hands went around his back and pulled him closer to me - I wanted him as close as possible, I wanted our bodies to merge. I felt his arms around me, too.
And then he pushed me away.
He stood up quickly and turned away from me. I was left on my knees on the floor, confused and empty again.
"We can't do this," he said.
"Why?" I hoped that didn't sound as plaintive to him as it did to me. I stood up too.
He turned to face me, and gave a sad sort of smile. "I'm a thief. You're a cop. It'd never work."
"Not a cop. A private detective," I reminded him.
"Still a cop at heart."
"We could make it work." Fuck, I couldn't believe what I heard coming out of my mouth. The bastard walked out on me without saying a word, and then ten years later all it takes is I see him, touch him, find out that he nearly died and I didn't know it - and I'm begging him for another chance.
"No." His expression became very hard; I felt a chill run down my spine. "I'll leave you again, Vic. Just like before. In a few days or a week I'm out of here, and I won't say goodbye, and you won't see me again."
What could I say to that? "I guess I'll be going, then," I said, making my own voice cold. And I walked out the door without looking back.
The next morning I sat at my desk, trying to catch up with paperwork. My mind kept drifting over the details of the past few days, trying to sort them out.
Joey Conner had been missing - maybe - for nearly three weeks now. Before going missing, he'd been having an affair with Sarah Miller. Sarah Miller's husband Marcus was wealthy, jealous, and violent. As far as Sarah knew, Marcus didn't know about Joey - but she could be wrong.
The first day I'd started looking for Joey, I'd gone to check out the Millers' home turf. A limo had pulled up in front of it just as I walked by; if there'd been anyone in the limo, I didn't see them but they certainly saw me. A few hours later, I'd gone home and found my door unlocked and a white rose on my pillow - Mac's signature.
This had started me asking questions, and I'd found out the connection between Sarah and Mac. Then, after five days of hard footwork, I'd found Mac himself - who claimed to have been in Toronto for just a week and a half, "this time."
And he hadn't left the rose.
Someone left me the rose. I didn't know anything else, but I could make guesses. Whoever left the rose knew what significance I'd see in it. They knew it would start me looking for Mac. They probably also knew that Mac was in town to be found.
My phone rang. The display said it was Rosemary, in the front office. That probably meant someone had just walked in our front door; if there was no one else around she never used the phone, she just yelled through the door.
I hit the speaker button.
"Man here to see you," Rosemary said. "Won't give his name. Says you know him."
"Send him in," I said.
The frosted glass door opened, and Mac walked in.
He was dressed inconspicuously today, in a well cut charcoal grey business suit.
"Man, your secretary is scary," he said as soon as he'd shut the door behind him.
I gave him a tight smile that didn't reach my eyes. "She's good for scaring the bill collectors away. Why are you here?"
"I came to give you a present," he said. He drew a folded piece of paper out of an inside pocket of his jacket. "I've had a tap on the Millers' phone for a while for... my own reasons. Last night I checked through the logs to see if I could find anything that might help you."
I took the piece of paper and unfolded it. It was a transcript of a brief conversation, reading:
Call begins: 05/21/2008 19:33:43
Party 1 [Marcus Miller]: Hello?
Party 2 [unknown]: Yo, it's me. Conner is dealt with.
Party 1: No business calls on this line, you idiot.
Call ends. Duration of call: 8 seconds.
Party 2's phone number was listed, too; it was a Toronto area code.
I folded the paper up again. "This looks helpful all right. Doesn't look so good for Joey."
"You understand, you can't go to the police with this," he cautioned me. "I don't want you telling anyone about the tap. I'm going out on a limb here, giving this to you."
"I'm all choked up," I said, very dry.
He looked slightly wounded. Good. "Anyway, I figure you can use this to find something you can take to the police."
"Hopefully. The call's from May 21st." Today was the 9th of June. "It might be too late now. But I'll try."
"Good luck." He hesitated, giving me a searching look, and then he reached for the doorknob. "Bye, Vic."
"Bye, Mac." I stayed behind my desk, and he walked out the door.
It took every ounce of willpower I had not to run after him. Instead, I laid my trembling hands over the keyboard of my computer, and went to work.
It was a matter of 30 seconds to go to the Canada 411 website and find the name and address associated with Party 2's phone number. The name was Christopher Smith.
Now, this Chris Smith wasn't necessarily the voice on the phone, but he was a good place to start. I went down to the police station to see what they had on him. I showed a clerk my license, paid 50 bucks, and was rewarded ten minutes later with a nice juicy rap sheet.
Smith had a list of priors including b&e and armed assault. He'd been to jail twice, for a total of four years. He looked like a good candidate for a hired thug.
His sheet included a photo and a description, too. I glanced over it. 29 years old, 5'11", 160 pounds, white. Identifying marks: 6 cm scar on back of right forearm. Tattoo of skull on right bicep, tattoo of flames on left bicep, tattoo of script "JJ" on left inner thigh.
I went for a drive past Smith's address, just to check it out. He lived in a bungalow, in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood. The neighbourhood looked shabbier than it might normally, because there were big piles of garbage bags in front of most of the houses. Some had torn or spilled, so there was a fair amount of loose trash blowing around. Toronto's garbage collectors had been on strike for the past three weeks; apparently residents of this neighbourhood were expressing their frustration by leaving everything on the curb.
The garbage strike sucked in general - I had three weeks' worth of garbage festering under my own kitchen sink, and it was starting to smell - but now it looked like real good luck. I parked in front of Smith's house and took a good look around. I didn't see anyone watching, and besides, who's going to worry about a guy stealing garbage? I quickly tossed the four bags into the back of my pickup. (And Li Ann said there was no point having a pickup in the city. Ha.) Working fast, I redistributed a few bags of the neighbours' trash so that the curb in front of the Smith house wasn't suddenly and conspicuously empty, and then I drove away with my loot.
The next part of the job was not pleasant. I put on coveralls and work gloves, and went through the trash.
The first suspicious thing I found was a knife with what looked like dried blood on it. I put it in a ziplock bag and kept digging. The second suspicious thing was a blue cotton shirt caked with dried blood. That went in a larger clear plastic bag.
Then I hit real pay dirt. I found a couple pieces of a ripped-up photo. Between them, they showed about two thirds of a face.
It was Joey Conner.
That was it. That was enough. I went to the police.
It took about an hour to make my report. I talked to a detective who knew me and respected me, so it all went pretty smoothly. I told them about why Sarah had hired me - there was no point in keeping her secret now, since her husband clearly knew about her affair. I told them how Joey hadn't been seen or heard from in nearly 3 weeks, and about him not logging on to the server at the math department. I told them that I'd gone through Smith's trash on an anonymous tip. I gave them the knife, the shirt, and the pieces of the photo, and let them know that the rest of the trash was outside in my truck if they wanted it - which I knew they would. The detective promised me that a couple uniforms would go by the Millers' house right away and try to get Sarah out of there safely before the shit hit the fan.
I went home, cleaned up, and made myself a quick stir-fry for dinner.
I couldn't settle down. I still felt edgy. There were too many loose ends. The case of Joey Conner was as solved as I was going to get it, sure - it was the police's job from here on. But there was still the question of the rose.
I went back to the Royal George hotel. It was only 8:43 p.m.; not too late for a surprise visit to an old friend, right? I went straight up to room 814 and knocked on the door.
The peephole darkened momentarily, and the door didn't open.
Shit. Last time I'd visited, Mac had made a big deal of not using the peephole. Conclusion: whoever was in there, it wasn't Mac.
"Hey Susan, are you in there?" I called. "My key's not working!"
"You're at the wrong room, asshole," came a harsh male voice from inside.
"Oh shit! Sorry to bother you!" I called, and turned to walk quickly back to the elevator. I decided I'd go to the front desk and find out whether Mac had checked out.
There was a fire extinguisher set into the wall at the end of the hall in front of me, behind glass. In that glass, at the last possible moment, I noticed the reflected flicker of sudden movement behind me.
I spun around, and the blow meant for the back of my head caught the side of my head instead. It was still enough. I saw a bright white flash of pain, and then sank into black.
Chapter 4: Just Like Old Times
My head hurt. Where was I? What happened last? I could hear voices, and I didn't recognize them. Experience cautioned me not to move or groan until I knew a bit more about what was going on.
I was lying belly down on a soft surface. My hands were behind my back. I didn't try to move them. As the fog cleared from my head, I developed the suspicion that they were tied back there, anyway.
My head hurt. I'd been hit on the head. Just after I walked away from Mac's room.
Men were talking sporadically and quietly, very close to me. I caught Mac's name, and listened harder.
"Hope Ramsey gets here soon," one man was saying, "I gotta take a piss."
There was maybe a minute of silence, in which I distracted myself from the throbbing of my head by trying to count the men in the room by their breathing. Two, three, four? I couldn't tell.
Then I felt rough hands grabbing my shoulder and flipping me over onto my back. I forced myself to stay limp, and I kept my eyes closed. I was way outnumbered, my hands were tied behind my back, and I was still fuzzy from the blow to the head - no way I was coming up fighting, not yet.
"I knew I'd seen him before!" a new voice announced triumphantly. "Look, this is the guy we were following the other day."
"Yeah, Einstein," said the first voice, the man who had to pee. "Connie and Ray followed him all the way here yesterday - that's how we found Ramsey."
Shit. Followed me? I didn't see anyone. But several people working together can do a pretty good tail if they know what they're doing. Goddamn it. Mac was not my favourite person in the world at this point, but I sure as hell wasn't happy with myself for leading these guys to him.
But who were these guys? And how come they'd been following me in the first place?
The man with the full bladder spoke again. "Fuck it, I gotta take a piss." I heard some rustling sounds of movement.
"Like hell!" the second voice hissed. "You go, he's sure to come through the door soon's you got your dick in your hands. It's Murphy's law, dig it?"
"Yeah, so? Then you've still got him two on one. Scared?" the first voice taunted.
"Listen," the second insisted, "this guy's got more lives'n a cat. This ain't gonna be easy."
"Yeah," a new voice said, "I heard the boss shot him straight through the heart once. Fucker survived it!"
"I don't care, I'm not pissing my fucking pants," the first voice said.
There was a sound of movement, then further off the sound of a man pissing. And right at that moment, there was the sound of a lock clicking and a doorknob turning.
"I knew it," growled the second voice.
"IT'S A TRAP!!!!" I yelled at the top of my lungs. Fast as I could, I rolled off the bed and hit the floor behind it with a thump. I heard the repeated pop and thud of someone shooting a silenced gun several times into the bed where I'd just been lying. More gunshots followed, all of them silenced. Someone yelled, someone else swore, I heard the thuds of body parts hitting other body parts. The bed was between me and all the action, and I concentrated on trying to get my hands free. Whoever tied me up must've been the worst Boy Scout in the world - it took me about 15 seconds to get loose. Of course, 15 seconds is a long time in a fire fight. I peeked over the edge of the bed, and Mac was the only man standing in the room. I looked on the floor and saw two bodies. Two.
"Bathroom!" I yelled, just as the third man came out with his gun firing. Mac dove right at the guy's legs and took him down. The man kept his hold on his gun, but Mac had lost his. Mac grabbed the guy's wrist, and punched at him, while the man tried to twist away or get his gun pointing at Mac. I had my gun out by then, pointing at them, but they were rolling around too much and I couldn't get a clear shot. I ran towards them, and saw Mac land a hard punch on the guy's nose. The man's head snapped back and he went limp; the gun dropped from his hand.
Mac tugged his shirt straight and stood up. "What are you doing here?" he asked me. He looked pissed off, and that made me angry in turn.
"Oh, I just came by to say hello," I said. "But I see you're busy. I can come back later."
"Vic!" Mac bit his lip. "I'm sorry for snapping at you. You probably just saved my life." As he spoke, he closed the door to the hall.
"Yeah, well, I guess I was the one who nearly got you killed, too." I felt honour-bound to let him know this, even though it seriously pained me to say it. "They followed me here yesterday."
"Hey, don't worry about that," he said. He seemed to take the whole thing pretty casually. "They would have found me anyway, one way or another. But seriously, what were you doing in here with them?"
I winced, touching the side of my head. "I came by to try to talk with you again. You weren't here, they were. One of them knocked me out, and they tied me up. I came to and heard them talking about following me, and killing you."
Mac had noticed my gesture; he came to me now with a worried expression and checked out the side of my head where I was hit. "You were knocked out? How do you feel now? Come on, sit down on the bed."
"I've got a bitch of a headache, but I'm OK," I insisted, letting him make me sit down.
He took a penlight from his pocket. "Look into the light," he told me, shining it into each of my eyes in turn. "Are you dizzy at all? Any double vision?"
I was both touched and irritated at his concern. We were sitting here in a hotel room full of bullet holes and dead bodies, and he was playing nurse with me. "No, really, I'm OK."
"Well, you tell me if anything changes, all right?" He put his light away, and went over to the nearest dead body. Then, to my amazement, he started to undo the dead man's pants.
"What the hell are you doing?" I asked.
"Checking his credentials," Mac answered, yanking the dead guy's pants down to his knees.
I grimaced. "That's disgusting!"
The man was wearing boxers; Mac pushed the left leg up, showing all the skin of the man's thigh. I just glimpsed some mark on the inner thigh. Mac nodded, and stood up.
"Hey, let me see!" I jumped off the bed, and checked where Mac had just looked.
The man had a tattoo on his inner thigh, the letters JJ in fancy cursive script. That rang a bell for me, but from where...? The rap sheet!
"Hey!" I said, all excited. "This is my guy! This is Chris Smith, the guy who did Joey!" Then I took another look at the face of the guy. "Wait a second...." I frowned. "This isn't him. But he has the same tattoo."
Mac, in the middle of putting his gun away, gestured at the other dead guys. "If you check them, they'll probably have it too. Their boss likes to mark them."
"They work for Janet Jackson?" I quipped.
Mac snorted. "Keep guessing."
Well. This case had already got me involved with Li Ann, and with Mac.... "Jackie?" I said. "Jackie Janczyk? She's their boss? She's the one who shot you?"
"How'd you know about that?" he asked, touching his chest in an automatic gesture.
"These guys mentioned it while we were waiting for you. Apparently you're sort of a legend to them." That got a smirk from Mac. "But... what the hell? Wasn't Jackie on our side?"
Mac rubbed his jaw, giving me a long, thoughtful look. I thought he looked tired, and sad. "I wanted to keep you out of this," he said finally. "But I guess you're in it now. Why don't we go for a walk, and we can talk?"
"All right. Talking sounds good," I agreed. "But what about this?" I indicated the carnage.
"Yeah. Hold on a minute." Mac took a cell phone from one of his pockets. He flipped it open, and clipped a scrambler on it. He punched some numbers, then put it to his ear.
"Hey," he said into the phone. "I need a cleanup. Royal George hotel, Toronto, room 814." He paused, listening. "Three," he said. Then, after more pauses, "Yeah," and "No." Then he put the phone away.
We left the room, stepping carefully around the spreading dark patches of blood in the carpet.
I kept my silence until we were outside the hotel. It was around 10 p.m., and a balmy night. A busker played a cheerful song on a guitar just down the street, and his music drifted around us.
"Are you really a jewel thief?" I asked him.
Mac put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me closer. I jerked away from him.
"We don't exactly have that kind of relationship right now," I sort of hissed.
"Easy, Vic," he murmured. "We can talk more securely if our heads are closer together, that's all."
"All right," I said, reluctantly. I let him put his arm around me and pull me closer again. We started walking.
"No," he answered my question. "I'm not."
I'd suspected as much. "You're an agent again," I guessed.
"Still an agent, actually," he corrected me. "I never quit."
"But-" I pulled away a bit so I could look at him. "You left. No one knew where you were."
"Stay calm Vic," he murmured, tightening his arm around my shoulders momentarily. "I'm going to tell you some things that'll probably be hard to hear." By then we'd come adjacent to a very small city park. He led me to a bench. "Why don't we sit down here."
He kept his arm around me as we sat, and then he gently nudged my head onto his shoulder, so my temple was resting against his cheek. He was very careful not to touch the side of my head where I'd been hit.
If anyone saw us they'd be sure we were lovers, murmuring the sorts of things that lovers say.
"They knew where I was," he said. "They just told you and Li Ann that they didn't."
"Why would they do that?"
"Because you weren't involved anymore. They were retiring you."
"And what about Jackie?"
I felt him take a deep breath before he spoke. "Jackie killed the Director."
"What?" I sat up. "The Director died in a car crash."
"Stay calm," he murmured again, keeping his arms around me. "Jackie brought her a cup of coffee just before she left the hospital. It was poisoned. That was why she crashed - the poison killed her, not the crash. They - the Agency heads - covered it up, of course. I took off after Jackie. It all happened very fast. There was no time to leave a message for you. I'm sorry." He tightened his grip around me for a moment. "I lost her trail after a couple days, in Chicago. When I reported back to the Agency, I got told I was being moved to the international section. I wasn't even allowed to go back to my apartment to get anything. They took me right away to the Section, in - well never mind where. Far from here. It was weeks before I was allowed to find out anything about you or Li Ann, except that you were alive. When I did, I found out that you'd both been allowed to retire from the Agency. That you were finally being allowed to have a normal life. I knew how much you'd wanted that."
"Not without you," I said in a very low, quiet voice.
"Anyway, I couldn't have contacted you without putting you in danger," he said. "The international section is even more hard-core than the Agency. Operatives aren't allowed any outside connections." He stroked my hair as he spoke.
I felt like I was being buffeted around by a crazy wind. It felt like everything I knew was turning out to be false - and the one thing I'd struggled for years to convince myself was false, Mac's love for me, was maybe turning out to be real after all.
He kept telling me his story. "Working for the Section was a lot like working for the Agency, only I worked with different partners on nearly every mission, and the missions crossed international borders. Jackie resurfaced about three years later, in connection with some diamond smugglers. I was put on that case because I knew her. That was when we met in Antwerp, and she shot me."
I shivered at the thought, and he hugged me tighter again. "The same day I got married," I remembered.
"Tell me about that?" he asked.
"I don't like to talk about it," I said. "It lasted two years, and when we got divorced she was pregnant, and neither of us knows who the father is, except it sure as hell isn't me. I pay child support anyway, 'cause I know she can't afford to raise the kid on her own. And I don't get visitation, because of my criminal record and the six years I was with the Agency, which I can't account for to her lawyer."
"That's a sad story, Vic." He sounded like he meant it.
"Yeah. Well, your story's better. And has more to do with us nearly getting killed tonight. So let's talk about that some more. What about the white rose?"
"My guess is Jackie got someone to leave it," Mac said.
"I get it." I didn't like this bit at all, but I saw how it fit together. "The guys in your hotel room said they'd followed me. Jackie wanted to find you - so she left the rose and let me look for you."
He put a hand over my tightly clenched fist. "She uses people. You had no reason to suspect anything like this."
I made myself relax - Mac wasn't mad at me, and there was no point being mad at myself. As for Jackie - wow, 'mad' didn't even begin to describe what I felt about her. "I guess Marcus Miller was working with Jackie somehow," I said. "I know he was involved in the diamond trade. The day I went out to the Millers' place to look around, there was a limo out front - whoever was in it saw me, but I never saw them. That must've been Jackie. And when she saw me she came up with that plan with the rose."
"Probably," Mac confirmed my guess with a nod. "Marcus helps Jackie get blood diamonds onto the market, disguised as Canadian diamonds."
"Blood diamonds?" Sounded nasty.
"Diamonds produced in areas of conflict, sold to bankroll wars," he explained.
"And that's why you were in the Millers' house that night you met Sarah?"
"Yeah. I really was stealing diamonds."
I looked around at him and smiled. "Once a thief, always a thief, right?" I kissed him on the lips, just softly. "And then you heard Sarah screaming, and you risked everything to save her."
"It wasn't much of a risk," he protested, mock-wounded, "I knew what I was doing. There was another agent with me. He rang the front doorbell and ran away while I snuck Sarah out the back."
"And then Marcus Miller found out somehow that Sarah was having an affair with Joey, and he borrowed one of Jackie's goons to get rid of his competition," I surmised.
"I guess so," Mac agreed.
"Well," I said quietly, "that pretty much explains everything."
I felt emotionally numb. The idea that Jackie had murdered the Director - that would take some getting used to.
And Mac hadn't betrayed me. Not really. He'd thought he was keeping me safe by staying away - he'd thought he was doing the best thing for me by letting me have a normal life. I thought he was wrong about all that, but that was very different from cold-blooded betrayal.
I felt Mac shiver. It was getting cool out, and he was wearing a thin, short-sleeved shirt. "You can't go back to the hotel room now," I said. "Come home with me. Please."
"I'd like that," he said.
We walked to my truck, holding hands. I kept sneaking peeks at Mac out of the corner of my eye.
He had changed, for sure. He was a lot more serious than he had been ten years ago. Quieter, too - ten years ago, he would've been chatting my ear off at this point, telling me about the music he liked now, or the shirt he wanted to buy, or the cool action movie he'd just seen.
"How's your head?" he asked when we got to the truck. "You OK to drive?"
"Yeah." My head still throbbed, but less than before.
On the drive to my place, he asked me questions about my life. Nothing deep - just questions about the sort of cases I worked, what I did in my spare time, that sort of thing.
When I let him into my apartment, he walked around the whole thing once, checking it out. He came back to me with a bag of frozen peas from my freezer, and made me sit down and put the bag against my head where I'd been hit. He paced around the room, reminding me more and more of a caged cheetah, while he thought out loud about how he'd justify all this to his current Director, a man he called X.
"It's not like you're a normal person," he reasoned. I snorted a laugh at that. "I mean," he said, "You used to be an agent, too. You were on the inside. And they let you retire alive, so they must trust you."
That seemed to me like a strange way for him to put it. "What else would they have done - killed me?"
Mac stopped moving for a moment, and I saw intense pain flicker over his face. "Yeah," he said tightly, "It's been done."
He resumed pacing around the room. I nearly accused him of making me dizzy, but I realized he had to work his nervous energy out somehow. Besides, if I said I was dizzy he'd probably think it was from the blow to the head, and insist on taking me to the hospital. Mac had never been so solicitous of me before - but ten years ago, he'd left me when I was in a coma it looked like I might not come out of. Maybe he was having flashbacks.
"Do you think you could get out?" I suggested. "I was your age when they retired me."
He shook his head. "Probably not - not while Jackie's still active, anyway. You were retired pretty early, because of the Director dying and your head injury and everything. I know of a few field agents who are over forty."
I shifted the bag of peas around; the side of my head was getting nice and numb. "Maybe I could get back in, if they just retired me because of the head injury. I had double vision on and off, and balance problems, after I came out of the coma, so I can see why they would've decided to let me go. But that all cleared up after a few months - after I was already out of the Agency."
"Back in?" He stared at me. "Didn't you want out more than anything?"
"No!" I tried to keep my voice under control, hold it steady. "I wanted to be with you more than anything."
He shook his head, like he didn't quite believe me. I remembered then that that had been one of our big problems back when we were together - he'd never seemed to fully trust my love for him. He'd been abandoned and betrayed too many times. I'd wanted to get past that, to convince him that he could count on me, that I'd always want him - but there hadn't been time. The end had come too soon.
"Anyway," he said, "no offence, but you're ten years older now - they'd never take on a new agent who's close to fifty."
"Hey!" I took offence. "Forty-six is not close to fifty." I glared at him. "Unless you want me to call you 'close to forty.'"
"Maybe X would let me bring you to the Section as a consultant, if you agreed to that," he suggested hesitantly. "You knew Jackie, and you've got the investigative experience...."
I dropped the bag of frozen peas, and leapt to my feet to plant myself in his path. He nearly bumped into me. We stood so close together then that I had to tilt my face up to look him in the eye. "I absolutely would agree to that," I said firmly. "I would do anything to be with you again - including selling my soul to another Director." I couldn't stand seeing the doubt and hesitation still in his eyes. I reached up to run my fingers through his hair in a light caress. "Has there been anyone else for you?"
He shook his head. "Never for more than a night or two." He said the words casually, but I could feel the loneliness behind them - echoing my own.
"We were really good together, Mac."
"Yeah. We were, weren't we?" He smiled. And then he kissed me.
We kissed deeply, getting reacquainted. My hands snaked around his back, and I drew him even closer to me. I felt like a slow fire was starting deep inside of me - my passion for him had never died out, though the embers had been buried under years of cold ashes. My fingers itched to rip his clothes off, but I held back - I wanted to know that he wanted me.
I wasn't disappointed. Soon Mac's fingers were walking up my chest, and settling to the task of loosening my tie and pulling it off, while he nibbled at my neck. That broke the ice - soon we were leaving a trail of clothes behind us on the way to the bedroom.
Mac, naked, on my bed, in my arms. It was a beautiful dream I hadn't dared to think about in a decade. And now he was nibbling and nuzzling and kissing every part of me. I felt his lips on my dick, and I tightened my fingers in his hair and moaned. He was only teasing - he licked me, teased the tip of my penis with his tongue, then came back up to kiss me on the lips again.
"Can you forgive me for leaving you?" he whispered.
"Yes. Oh, yes," I breathed, and pulled him tight against me. "Just don't do it again, OK?"
"I promise," he answered fiercely, and began kissing me with a frenzied passion. I met his intensity with my own, and our kisses and caresses became rougher, more wild. He bit me on the shoulder and I moaned at the sweet pain.
"I want to feel you inside me again." His voice was husky, and hopeful. "Do you have condoms? lube?"
"Actually, yes." I broke away from him reluctantly and stood up to rummage through a drawer in my dresser.
"So you haven't been living like a monk after all?" He sounded shocked, but not upset. "Good for you." He sounded really proud of me actually. That surprised me - but Mac had never been possessive with me. Needy, but not possessive.
"Actually," I had to admit, "I have been living like a monk." I pulled out a paper bag of condoms and little sample tubes of lube. "Rosemary - my secretary - she gives these to me. I mentioned to her once that I was bi, and ever since then she's been giving me these little presents. And pamphlets on safe sex practices. And toys. And she keeps inviting me to come with her to Egale meetings."
I guess I sounded a bit harried. Mac laughed at me. "She sounds great. What kind of toys?" He saw the expression on my face, and came over to kiss me. "Sorry. Too much at once, right? Maybe you can show me some other time."
We drifted back to the bed, our hands running all over each other. He ripped open a condom packet, and unrolled the condom over the hard length of my dick; I twitched at his touch, and buried my face in his hair, whimpering, while he slicked lube over me. Then he gave me the tube, and I did my fingers. "Ready?" I breathed.
I slipped one finger into his ass, and enjoyed his moans as I moved it around. My dick ached with anticipation.
"Come on," he urged me. "Fuck me now!"
"Oh, but you've waited ten years already," I teased, withdrawing my finger.
In response he growled, and darted his head around to pinch my nipple between his teeth. I yelped.
"All right, you asked for it." I judged he was ready to take me. I slicked a bit more lube over my dick, and then pressed it against his ass - and he pressed back, and took me inside. I almost felt like weeping at the first moment of tight warmth, as the memories of all the other times flooded back to me. He bucked his hips impatiently, and I started to move. I thrust harder in response to his urgings, and felt myself begin to slide away, lost in the absolute pleasure.
He came with a primal yell, and that sent me over the edge as well. And then I collapsed against him, with my arms around him, aware of absolutely nothing at that moment but the smell of him and the sweaty warmth of his skin against mine. We lay there, tangled up with each other, while our breath slowed down.
"I love you," he murmured.
I hugged him as tightly as I could. "I love you, too. And this time, I'm holding on and I'm not letting go."
I felt him sigh, relaxed and content. And as for tomorrow? We'd deal with that when we got there.