Tip of My Tongue
Copyright August 2003
Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.
His eyes opened before his bedside alarm could sound, and he turned off the folding travel clock with the deftness of long habit. He knew it was meaningless, but nonetheless felt a small pride when he saw that he had awakened within a minute of the scheduled time. He stood, stretched, and spent a moment debating whether he should try to squeeze in some exercises before he showered. It was an ongoing argument between his reason (forty-four wasn't old, but if he didn't start taking care of himself he'd get old a lot sooner) and his pride (it never felt good to rediscover just how far he'd fallen from the careless athleticism of his college years). Conscience won out: he was on a job, and even if he wasn't first string, he really ought to do what he could to stay in trim.
To his surprise, it was easy. He cranked out a hundred push-ups, and didn't feel any particular strain until the count passed eighty-five. Sit-ups he gave up at a hundred and fifty, not because he had hit his limit but because he wasn't even coming close to it, and he had other things he wanted to do this morning. The rest of his occasional routine was devoted to stretching and flexibility, and those exercises too went with unprecedented smoothness. He checked himself over at the end, mystified, noting the evenness of his breathing and the taut flatness of his belly. He knew good and well he'd let himself run down the last few months — some sporadic jogging, a game of squash when he could find the time — but right now he felt like he could take on the world.
Well, he wasn't going to tempt fate by questioning his fortune. Must be the sea air, he told himself, smiling at the nonsensicality of it, and went into the tiny bathroom of his cabin to get the shower and shave that would complete his morning preparations.
On the main deck he looked around, pulling the fresh salt-tinged breeze into his lungs and checking to see how many of the other passengers had risen as early as he had. He'd never spent that much time aboard ships before, but he noted with satisfaction that his balance was steady and his stomach untroubled by the motion of the deck below his feet. Of course, a cruise ship in calm seas wasn't exactly a roller coaster ride, but this was one of the smaller of such craft, and it wasn't impossible to get seasick on one. It just wouldn't be happening to Hank Summers, not today.
He took his customary breakfast (coffee and Danish) from the morning buffet, and strolled along the observation deck, feeling happy and well-rested and pleased with himself. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he'd felt this good. As he descended a set of stairs (was there a special name for them on a ship, like "bulkhead" for a wall?) and started for the pool area, one of the stewards greeted him. "Good morning, Mr. Summers. How is your wife today?"
Hank allowed himself to look momentarily blank, then rushed to correct the seeming lapse. "Oh, my wife. Yes. She's sleeping in this morning; up too late last night, dancing and enjoying the show." He gave the steward an appreciative grin. "She's quite the party animal, Janie is."
Actually, Janie had gone over the side in a wet suit while they were anchored off Barcelona, and was no doubt head and ears into her mission by now. Hank's job was to maintain the illusion of her presence until she rejoined the ship at one of the countless small ports that dotted the coast where the Spanish Riviera gave way to the French and then the Italian. She was a trained agent, and he was her cover: the middle-aged man (okay, he could admit it, even if he didn't feel it) taking off for a self-indulgent holiday with his secretary under the flimsiest of pretenses.
The brisk walk around the decks left him both refreshed and restless. On his own, he would have explored some more, mixed with the other passengers, shared in the shipboard gossip and stories of home and crackbrained political theories that abounded wherever American tourists were to be found. He wasn't on his own, though, he was a man with responsibilities, and despite what his ex might say, he took his responsibilities seriously.
He was below decks and almost back to the cabin when he saw the woman. He tried to stop himself from staring, and then let it happen, a normal man in these circumstances would stare, or at the very least obviously pretend not to. She was halfway up one of the little stairsets (he'd have to find out what those were called), and she had draped herself over the railing with such total boneless lassitude that for a moment it appeared that she was twined through the thin metal support rods like ivy. A lot of the passengers were pale — he himself could stand to work on his tan — but this woman's skin might have never been touched by the sun. She was dressed in a lace-patterned gown of old-fashioned cut, and she regarded him with huge, pale, empty eyes, the unblinking unself-consciousness of a child.
As he made a show of pulling himself together, she stirred, her eyes holding his, and it seemed certain that she would come to him or call him to her; but then a steward, not the one he'd met topside, came down the stairs and touched her on the arm. "We have your drink, ready, ma'am," he said with practiced, professional gravity. "Just the way you like it."
The expression she turned on the man seemed hostile somehow, in a way it would have been difficult to define, but she spoke languidly. "Yes, yes, I'm thirsty. So kind of you to notice. The way I like it, you say?" She glanced back along the corridor to where Hank still stood watching, and a crafty smile tilted her lips. "Something with … lots of body to it?"
"You'll have to judge for yourself, ma'am," the steward replied. "If it doesn't satisfy you, we'll be happy to bring you something else."
"How very ingratiating of you." Her eyes left Hank, and he had the oddest conviction that he had just ceased to exist for her. "Lead, and I shall follow. Down and dark, shielded from the hateful furnace …" Her voice trailed out and was lost as the steward escorted her away.
Hank shook his head and turned to continue back to the cabin. He frowned as he walked. The effect the brief encounter had had on him … it wasn't uneasiness, exactly, but it was definitely a response to something very odd. The woman dressed like an Edwardian ingénue and talked like a mystic, but her accent was what you would hear from some lower-class British shopgirl. The combined impression, along with the strangeness of her behavior, was of something not quite real.
He shook it off. This was a working vacation.
In the cabin he called room service to have a light Continental breakfast delivered, along with a small bottle of champagne. (The breakfast, regrettably, would go down the shipboard toilet, but he would enjoy what he could of the champagne.) He stripped and donned a short silk robe, and when yet another steward arrived with his order, he answered the door with the goofy eagerness he judged would be seen in a man having his midlife fling. Using the cabin door to block a view of the bed, he thanked the man effusively and gave him a tip that was rather too large before ostentatiously hanging the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the knob. As he pushed the door closed he turned to call to the empty bed, "Here you are, darling, something to start the day."
It was all part of the routine, but the words echoed in his memory to call up a pang of regret. How long since he'd spoken that way to any woman except Joyce? and how could he still have such undeniable feelings for a woman he had found it impossible to stay married to? She was in his past, but it was a past he'd never be able to put behind him; even if he found someone else (and he would, he was no hermit), some small part of her would always be there in the back of his mind.
Resolutely he continued with his duties. He poured champagne into both glasses, filling each only halfway; he drank the first, then carefully applied lipstick to his mouth with a tube from the smart little handbag Janie had left behind, and made sure to leave a good print on the second glass when he emptied it. He used a couple of tissues to wipe his mouth clear of lipstick, and dropped them into the bedside wastebasket, where they would provide further testimony that a missing woman was still in residence. On impulse he pulled the little slices of crisp toast from the Continental breakfast, munching them with absent-minded relish while he dumped and flushed the rest.
He showered again, this time using the herbal shampoo and French milled soap Janie had left. He was dressing a second time when the first odd note finally worked its way up to his conscious mind, and he stopped and glanced at the champagne bottle, vaguely puzzled. He had ordered the bottle to bolster the cliché he was trying to project, but had selected the label and vintage because he had heard it recommended but had never had the opportunity to sample it himself. And yet, the taste that still clung to the inside of his mouth … he poured another half-glass and sipped it slowly, rolling the effervescent liquid over his tongue and then letting it glide down his throat. Yes, there was no denying it, this vintage was thoroughly familiar to him: not something he'd encountered and forgotten, but something his taste buds knew, welcomed as an old friend. How on earth —?
Nothing. It was nothing. Similarity to something he'd had before, or maybe the ship was trying to economize by passing off cheaper drink under a prestigious label. He returned to his task, mussing both sides of the bed and leaving makeup stains on the towels, brushing his teeth with both toothbrushes, extracting one-day-worn clothing from an inner bag of Janie's suitcase and dropping it into the laundry hamper along with his own. He'd spend most of each day in this cabin until Janie returned, doing his part to conceal her absence. It was a more important assignment than the minor courier jobs he usually got, and rather more luxurious, but there was nothing remotely exciting about it.
That, unfortunately, was the way it worked. The first approach, back in the Eighties, had been exciting, and back then it had made sense. With budget cuts and endless Congressional inquiries, U.S. intelligence activities overseas had been dangerously curtailed. There was a crippling shortage of trained personnel … but, one of the mid-level decision makers had realized, many jobs didn't require the talents of a formal agent. When you needed people to pose as innocent American tourists, why not recruit and send out — never for more than one job — actual American tourists, briefed and voluntary but serving more as filler than anything else? Hank had been in one of the first few groups (fortunately, because the program had been precipitously deep-sixed the moment Congressional oversight got a whiff of it), happy to serve his country and inject a little variety into a life that was already threatening to become humdrum. He had found it enough to his taste that, eight months after his initial foray into the outer fringes of espionage, he had quietly contacted CIA headquarters in Langley and volunteered to do more of it.
They had been cautious, but had not actively discouraged the idea; there was a history within the Company of using actual job-holding citizens for the occasional minor operation, it was the mass-marketing and relative high profile of the Masquerade program that had moved horrified directors to pull the plug. Hank was thoroughly investigated, asked some pointed questions about a college girlfriend who had dabbled in Socialism and some dubious charities to which he had contributed without fully researching them, but ultimately given a clean bill of health. Thereafter, once or twice a year he would make a foreign trip, either business or vacation, with some small item to pick up or deliver (always sealed against casual curiosity, but he'd never been tempted), sometimes only with instructions to be available as a point of contact if one was needed. Only once had he taken his wife and daughter along on such an outing; it had been gently recommended that he not repeat the practice, and in truth he had discovered by then that he enjoyed operating solo, it supported the pretense of greater intrigue and danger, while at the same time freeing him of responsibility for his family's safety. And God knew, he definitely needed the time to himself now and then …
Sometimes he wished there could be a little more thrill to it. The reality, however, was that the way things were suited him pretty well. The Company had taught him a few techniques of tradecraft, mostly how to keep from drawing attention to himself, and left it at that. The whole point of his role was that he was exactly what he appeared to be, an unremarkable American traveling periodically on valid business, unsuspected because he was (almost) totally innocent. He occasionally took martial arts classes, occasionally read gun magazines, occasionally dreamed of glory for which he knew himself to be unqualified; in the main, however, he was content with his lot.
The only problem was that, this time, he couldn't get out and mix the way he would have liked. He was Janie's cover, which meant keeping to himself a lot more than was his usual habit. He couldn't stay in too much — that also would have attracted notice, of a different kind — but he still felt the constraint.
Right. Like this was a hardship tour. He poured himself more champagne, and extracted a thick Stephen King paperback from his suitcase. Once he had settled himself into a comfortable position on the bed, he started in on the first chapter.
Ordinarily he liked King, and ordinarily a book this size would have been worth a full day of unhurried reading. This time, though, he found himself dissatisfied. It was … predictable, somehow, as if the themes and plot threads had been used too many times; he skimmed entire sections, seeing what was about to be revealed the moment the first foreshadowing was laid. Maybe Steve was letting himself get into a rut. And the basic foundation of the story, who could really believe it? A bunch of kids, pitting themselves against supernatural horrors; an entire town where children routinely disappeared and no one seemed to notice; monsters in the sewers, mind control that had people perpetrating massacres or ignoring them … if a town like that existed anywhere in the world, the Enquirer would have a field headquarters set up in city hall. Be serious: entertainment or not, a person could be expected to suspend only so much disbelief.
(And a demon clown as the central villain? come on, who could ever be afraid of a clown? Vampires, now, there was good threat material; he'd loved Salem's Lot, and any other vampire stories he could find. Well, except for that effete, overblown Anne Rice nonsense; it was silliness like that, he was convinced, that had led to his daughter's expulsion and near-breakdown five years ago.)
He finished the book in four hours, and let it fall onto the bedside table. He stared at the ceiling, disgruntled and … disturbed, somehow, though he couldn't have said why, exactly. The morning had started off well enough, but had slid downhill at a rate that was almost imperceptible but still managed to reach bothersome levels. Damn it, if every shipboard romp with an obliging secretary was this tedious, the world would be smitten by an epidemic of marital fidelity.
The thought brought no amusement, but it did bring him back to the task of the moment. He called the switchboard, or whatever it was on a boat, and requested a wake-up call in three hours and a plate of oysters by room delivery. When the latter arrived, he overtipped again, and through a conspiratorial smirk he observed to the steward, "Little woman's putting in some time at the pool. Me, I'm going to stoke the furnace and then rest a little." And, hefting the plate of oysters, he added, "Man's got to keep up his energy."
Was he overacting? he asked himself as he went to the small table set against the wall. Well, maybe a bit, but not too much. You had to be sure you laid on enough to make the impression you wanted, and he'd seen plenty of men get a lot more extreme when they had an option on some young female flesh. Besides, he really did like oysters.
The funny part was that he'd noticed Janie (who wouldn't?) but not felt any particular attraction. She was the temp who had come in when his regular secretary took a long-deferred vacation, and she had performed her duties with cool efficiency while still dressing and behaving in a way that made it clear that she was prime female and unapologetically in the market. She had interested but not tempted him … and then she had delivered the itinerary for the trip to Spain (which he already knew would double as an outing for Uncle Sam) with a change from automobile tour to cruise liner, and a cabin booked for the both of them. At his look of uncertainty — she was definitely bold enough to come up with something like this on her own — she had flashed him one of the standard recognition signals. The mission was on, and any potential fantasies died aborning.
Her name was probably an alias. But she was by-God officially established as his secretary, and they were on record for this cruise together. He might not receive any of the benefits, but he'd certainly have the bragging rights when he got back home.
The oysters went well with the still-chilled champagne, as he had somehow known they would, and he pulled out what would have been tomorrow's entertainment: Tom Clancy this time, and almost as thick as the King. If he let himself sink into the techno-details he sometimes skipped, this one should last him for a while …
It didn't, though. The plot was solid, the language satisfying, all the elements were there, but once again he anticipated almost all the major turns and developments. It was as if he'd read the same book ten years before, with the details coming back unsummoned as he approached them. (Could he have read it already, and then forgotten it? No; you could lose track of something by Christie or Asimov, but Clancy's output was gauged in number of pages rather than multiplicity of titles.) The story had been fulfilling in a way that he would never have gotten from the demon clown, but it was a pleasure revisited rather than newly discovered, and once again it was over far too quickly.
The wake-up call had come and gone, and he was hungry again. He had called to schedule a massage for his "wife", then called back an hour later to cancel, she wanted to go to one of the dance classes instead. He had met the basics of his agenda for today, and had managed to keep himself occupied. Problem was, he'd gone through almost all of his reading material, enough to have filled maybe three days if he could have leavened it with other diversions. He needed to replenish his stock; there was no knowing how long he had before Janie returned, and he was beginning to discover that "cabin fever" was a term with some punch behind it.
He removed the DO NOT DISTURB sign and left the cabin; this would give the cleaning staff an opportunity to register the evidence he had left. He considered an early supper, but decided instead to draw a light snack from another of the endless buffets, and then he went straight to the nearest gift shop.
The paperback racks brought no inspiration; he glanced over the available titles and could summon no enthusiasm for any of the offerings. Spy novels (no, thanks, not with the mood he was in), thrillers, Westerns, bodice-rippers, they all left him cold. It was more of the same "been there already" sense that had flavored most of his day. Oh, he might be willing to take another shot at DUNE, that was one that didn't pall with repetition, but he really would have preferred something fresh.
Magazines? He checked the selection. News, gossip, computers, muscle & fitness, fashion, travel … There. He reached in and extracted a copy of Inside Karate, those were usually entertaining and even if there was nothing interesting in any of the articles, he could always practice some of the illustrated techniques. He turned for the counter, glad at last to have something to occupy him —
— and almost ran into the person who had been standing behind him. He had to take a step back (she was so close that he really should have been able to feel her breath on the back of his neck), and had already begun an automatic apology when he recognized the woman from the stairs.
As before, her eyes held him with unsettling directness, and though she didn't glance at the magazine he held, her words seemed to refer to it. "Oh-h-hh. Wishes to have a warrior's heart, does he?" Her tone was less ethereal than before, and she smiled with seemingly genuine amusement. "He shall have the chance, perhaps. We shall have to see about that, shan't we?"