A nice, long chapter to make up for my tardiness. Also, the story begins to be actually decent again. Yay! Oh, and I realize that Jon's and Tory's relationship seems a little tame right now, perhaps even a little boring. Just hang in there...
A week later, Craw was snapping up stale breadcrumbs with much less enthusiasm. The flat things the humans ate every day for lunch were no longer as exciting as they had been. He wished they'd forage for something else.
Perhaps, Craw considered in his inhumanly straightforward manner, there was some sort of famine in this area of the country. After all, every day the female went out looking, and every day she returned empty-beaked. Maybe that was why the human-who-looked-like-his-human, the leader of his murder, was getting so cranky. He was stomping around the house now, making strange snarling noises under his breath, and both the light-feathered human and his human were avoiding him.
Speaking of his human…Craw jumped, fluttered, and swooped onto his human's shoulder. His human had been sick when they'd first arrived but was mostly healed now, for which Craw took complete credit. Who had fed him? Who had groomed him? Who had driven off the other humans when he was feeling sick or tired? Craw made a proud little croaking noise and gently nipped his human's ear. His human in return made a loud sound and swatted at him. It was an ill-aimed blow that Craw dodged easily before fluffing his feathers and settling down onto his human's shoulder. Together they stared out the window, watching the humans walking hurriedly far below them.
Suddenly Craw spotted a familiar figure.
"CRAW CRAW CRAW!" he called, making his human jump and forcing Craw to bail from his shoulder and settle back onto the table.
His human shouted at him, turned back to the window, and shouted again in a very different tone. This time the noise sent the light-feathered human and the leader human running to the door.
"Craw," said Craw in a very disgruntled squawk. He knew the human had at last seen what he'd already announced: the female had returned.
Now his human was holding out his hand and making soothing noises. Craw shuffled grumpily for a moment, then accepted the apology and stepped onto the proffered fist, climbing up his human's arm until he was once again properly settled on his shoulder. They went together to the door, Craw fluttering his wings with excitement. Perhaps the female's foraging had finally been successful.
"Enough, Jack!" Tory moaned. She was stretched out on the couch, high heels abandoned at the door, her nice suit wrinkled beneath her prone, exhausted body. Jon was perched on the arm of the couch and was gently running his fingers through her hair, a habit he seemed to have picked up from Craw. Tim was at the other end, massaging her weary feet with a very sympathetic look on his face. Jack alone stood opposite the couch, his arms crossed, his pretty features stony.
"Face it, Jack," she continued. "Nobody knows!"
"Somebody has to…"
"There has to be…"
"Just one more…"
"NO! No, no, NO!" Tory sank deeper in the couch and glared back at Jack to get her point across. "We've been searching for a week solid, and while you've all been sitting here on your asses…"
"We have not been sitting on our asses!" Jack spat.
"Well, you sure as hell haven't been walking up and down ALL OF NEW YORK wearing FUCKING HIGH HEELS!"
Her shouting became incomprehensible as it mingled with Jack's outraged, frustrated venting and Jon's frantic but doomed attempt to defend both of them at the same time.
Tim began speaking in a quiet voice, so low they couldn't hear him. Curious as to what he had to say, Tory shut up, trying to listen. Jon soon followed suit, and finally Jack.
"Peanut butter, jelly, bananas, orange juice, a couple gallons of milk, laundry detergent…" Tim was practically whispering. He stopped and beamed at them, his crooked smile lighting up his silly scarecrow face.
"I'm sorry," said Jack after a moment's pause, in the voice of one teetering on the edge of sanity. "Were you reciting your grocery list?"
"Trick I learned from a mob boss," said Tim with a shrug. "But now that you're all listening…" He smiled again, this time sheepishly. "Sorry, Jack, but Tory's right."
Jack swore under his breath. Jon placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and Jack calmed himself with a visible effort.
"Any other nuggets of wisdom?" Jack asked between gritted teeth.
"Yeah. Swallow your pride and call her."
Jack's expression morphed from contained fury to controlled despair. Tory leaned forward, completely forgetting about her sore feet in the excitement of a chance to tease Jack.
" 'Her?'" she asked brightly, innocently. Jack glared at her before his glance slid hesitatingly sideways to Jon. Jon was frowning, clearly puzzled.
Suddenly his eyes widened in comprehension.
Slowly he began to grin.
"Shut up," Jack muttered.
"I didn't say anything," said Jon, in a very similar tone of voice to the one Tory had used.
Jack gave them all a Look of Death before stomping out of the spacious living room. Tory leaned back against the pillow and let her eyelids flutter closed, inexpressibly relieved that at last they would be trying something new. Jon's fingers brushed her cheek gently.
"You're going to want to be awake for this," he murmured, his normally cool voice rippling slightly with laughter.
"Yeah, I almost feel sorry for him," Tim chimed in, giving her feet an extra squeeze.
She heard Jack reenter the room and with a massive effort sat back up. Jon slid from the arm of the couch to sit beside her, and she leaned against him and rested her head on his shoulder. His arm slid around her and rested lightly, casually, on her thigh. Tory gave in to temptation and turned her face into his neck, breathing in the faint smell of his aftershave with a sigh.
She loved him. For the life of her she couldn't explain why, but she did. It wasn't that she had to be with him all the time – in fact, she sometimes felt it necessary to leave the room before she broke his neck – or that she thought she would die without him, or anything as melodramatic as that. It wasn't even a case of "Can't eat, can't sleep, reach for the stars, over the fence, world-series kind of stuff." It was just that somehow, when she hadn't been paying attention, he had wound his way deep inside her mind. His sharp wit, his poor self-esteem, his exasperating desire to control, his intelligence, his strange streak of playfulness…virtues and vices both had nestled deep into her heart, so that a day without Jon felt as awkward and strange as a day without shoes, or a day without meals, or a day without laughter.
That, and the sex was fantastic.
She tried to convey this with a soft kiss on his white-shirted collarbone and a squeeze of his hand. He seemed to get the message, since the hand on her thigh gently increased its pressure and his lips touched her brow in turn. Tory was suddenly aching to get off her prim, itchy suit and into something more comfortable…like their bed.
Jack was back, though, and she waited for him to say something about her and Jon's cuddling. For once he was too distracted, punching numbers into his cell phone and waiting with a grim face as the dial tone rang.
"Hi, Viv, it's me, Ja…"
The click and the buzz were loud enough for all of them to hear. Jack pulled the phone from his ear, frowned, and hit redial.
"It's Jack, and I need your…Shit!" Was it her imagination, Tory wondered, or was the buzz even louder this time?
Jack swore softly and punched redial again, then swore much louder with it didn't pick up.
"Answer, damn you!"
"Lemme see," said Tim, holding out his hand. Jack dropped the cell phone into his hand and shoved his hands into his pockets. Strangely enough, despite the frustration obvious in his tense shoulders, Tory thought he seemed rather less than enraged. In fact, if she didn't know better, she would have thought he looked a trifle…guilty? Embarassed?
"Oh, great," said Tim.
"What?" Jack asked worriedly.
"She just blocked your number."
Jon fished in his pocket and handed Jack his cell phone. Jack took a deep breath and dialed again, a determined expression on his face. "Don't hang up!" He shouted into the phone when it picked up. "I have a job for you!"
"Yeah," said a female voice perfectly clearly, "The kind that starts with blow!" Click. Buzz.
Jack held the phone away from his ear, looking the picture of exasperation. Tory could feel Jon's ribs shaking with suppressed laughter.
"Uh, what's going on?" she murmured into his ear.
"Ex-girlfriend," he whispered back, the words almost incomprehensible as he desperately tried to contain his mirth.
"Ohhhh," murmured Tory in sudden comprehension. She tapped her fingers against her panty-hosed knee, thinking. Suddenly she grinned broadly. With a groan she stood up, balancing gingerly on her bruised feet.
"How important is it that we talk to this woman?" she asked a frowning, petulant Jack.
"Very," he admitted reluctantly.
"Gimme your phone," she told Tim. Tim leaned way over to hand her his phone. Grasping it, she casually positioned herself closer to Jack.
"What's the number?" she asked, facing him straight-on.
He reeled it off and she punched it in, waiting patiently for the woman to pick up. This time it was Jack who moved even closer, so that the front of their bodies almost touched. She read in that a subtle threat: don't try anything funny.
"Hello?" said a very, very cautious voice in Tory's ear.
"Hello, my name is Tory, and there's something I want you to hear." And with that Tory's small, hard knee shot up.
"Did you hear that?" she asked pleasantly a moment later.
"Was it an anguished scream, followed by a crumpling sound and some moaning?" the voice asked.
"Uh-huh. I didn't really think that Jack would react so dramatically to getting kicked in the balls."
"That was Jack?"
"You're dead!" Jack half-gasped, half-shouted from where he lay at her feet, clutching his crotch. "You wait and see…what I'm going to do to you!"
"Oh, yeah, that's Jack." The speaker's voice faint New York accent was suddenly enhanced considerably by amusement. "And you…you're Tory, eh?"
"At your service."
"Some interesting stories floating around about you, Miss Tory. They call you the Queen, did you know that?"
"Well, are you?"
"Am I what?"
"The Queen of the circus ring, so to speak."
"Um, I just temporarily emasculated Jack, so…"
"Aha! So you are royalty. Well, Your Highness, how about we get together for some lunch and discuss this job of yours?"
"You don't want to hear what it is first? Or how much we're going to pay?"
"Honey, this is just a date, not the fucking wedding. Tomorrow at Café Mania? Noon sharp?"
Tory snapped the phone shut just in time to dodge a pitiful lunge by Jack, who immediately collapsed on the floor again. In doing so she tripped backward and landed heavily in Jon's lap. He wrapped his arms tight around her, trapping her.
"Uh, you're not holding me down so Jack can get me, are you?" she asked nervously, wiggling against his wiry grip.
Jon buried his face in her back. She could feel his whole body shaking. Looking to the side, she saw Tim's long, pale hand fastened over his own mouth.
"You…had better not…laugh," gasped Jack as he stumbled painfully to his feet, his voice raspy with agony.
Instantly Jon and Tim burst into hysterical laughter. Jon's grip loosened and Tory jumped away, barely making it past a furious Jack to rush down the hallway and slam shut the door to her and Jon's room. Locking it with trembling fingers, she collapsed on the bed and laughed until her sides ached almost as much as her feet.
"So. Are you going to tell me who this chick is?" Tory shouted.
It was 11:30 exactly the following day, and she and Tim were standing on the sidewalk waiting for an opportunity to cross the street. The reason Tory was shouting was because two taxis had just collided, and between the raging drivers, the blasting horns, and the growing sound of sirens, it was impossible to hear a thing.
Tim tried to shout back an answer, grimaced, and shook his head so that his white-blonde hair was sent flying. When he stopped, it had rearranged itself into an entirely different pattern.
Tory was grinning, half about Tim's hair, half out of sheer delight that she was back in her jeans and sneakers, when Tim suddenly grabbed her arm and guided her through the maze of cars that were all honking their horns as loudly as possible. Before Tory could realize the danger they were in Tim was pulling her down the staircase of the subway.
"This is better," he said, his voice echoing very slightly in the relatively deserted tunnel. Tory was wondering where the famous New York crowds were when they turned a corner and mowed right into a long line of people pushing through the ticket counters.
Tim handed Tory her ticket and together they shoved their way in, slipping through the turnstiles and nearly losing each other in the press of people. Tim was ahead of Tory and turned around once to say something – "Lunch rush" was what it looked like, judging by the movements of his lips.
It wasn't until they were jam-packed into a subway car that they could finally speak. Sort of.
"Her name's Vivian, obviously, and she and Jack were together for a while a while ago."
"Nice of you to be specific."
"It's kind of hard to be specific with Jack. He's about as committed as a…a…dang. What's a really bad father example from the animal kingdom?"
"I get the idea. I take it Vivian eventually caught on?"
"Oh, Viv's not much in the commitment area herself. She just didn't take it too well that Jack had a few other girlfriends, too."
"In New York?" she asked, marveling at his audacity.
"Nah, around the country. He travels a lot, you know? Hell, even Jon and I can't keep track of his girlfriends. I mostly know about Vivian because she's here and because I've worked with her occasionally."
Tory opened her mouth to ask what she did, then remembered that she was standing literally cheek-to-shoulder blade with two sweaty businessmen, both of them clearly on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
"Well, that explains a lot," she said instead.
"Yeah, well, I get the feeling she'll like you," said Tim cheerfully. As he said the words Tory thought she saw his hand move, but when she looked again it was in his pocket. "Come on, kid, this is our stop."
They shoved their way out into a, thankfully, much less crowded station. Only when they had reached the street did Tim quietly begin to tell Tory what she needed to know.
"Vivian specializes in tech stuff, computers and all. She can hack into just about anything, and probably already did in second grade."
"Okay, cool, but why do we need her?"
Tim frowned. Tory almost laughed at the comically distressed face he made. Tim was adorable. "Didn't Jack tell you?"
"We're not exactly on speaking terms at the moment, remember?"
"Oh, yeah." Tim smirked. "So, we need Vivian to hack into the major banks and see if there have been any big money transfers recently into the accounts of known criminals."
"Banks?" Tory asked, her eyebrows shooting up.
"Yeah, banks. You know, large buildings, usually pretty impressive, where people keep their money…"
"Smartass, I know what banks are. But why would they keep the money in the bank? Why not under the mattress?"
"Sweetie, the kind of money that pays for a guy to take out someone like Jorge is a bit much for under the mattress."
Thinking of money, Tory suddenly had a slight panic attack. "Hey, Tim, I assume we're paying for this lunch, right? Do we have money?"
"We have all kinds of money, hon."
Tory gave him a doubtful look. "I sure distributed a lot of it out recently," she said. "I'm not sure we have much left."
"Trust me, we do. Or, more accurately, I do."
Tory cocked a disbelieving eyebrow. "Um, Tim, you're a pickpocket." That fact suddenly collided with the fact that he had a really, really nice apartment. "Where do you get your money?" she demanded, then blushed as she suddenly realized how strange that would sound.
Thankfully, Tim didn't seem at all offended. "Wondered when you'd put it together. I thought it was pretty obvious that I had a trust fund."
Tory dodged a woman talking into her cell phone and then gaped at Tim. "You? Trust fund? Wait a minute…"
"The wheels are turning," Tim whispered dramatically.
"Jack and Jon gave it to you, didn't they?"
"Technically, Jack gave it to me. Jon got cut out of the will, remember? When Mr. Jackson Crane disappeared from Park Avenue to become Jackson Rippner, he basically handed the whole kit and caboodle to me. Felt guilty about taking it, I guess, or maybe he was just still that mad at his parents, didn't want to touch it. It sure is plenty, though. Hell, I hardly even work anymore. You wouldn't believe the stocks I own…hey, here we are."
They were standing in front of Café Mania, a brightly colored, bohemian looking place. Despite the slightly chilly weather a few people were sitting outside, smoking cigarettes and comparing body art.
"You're up," said Tim cheerfully, slapping her on the shoulder and turning away.
"Hey!" Tory shouted, whirling around in sudden panic. "Where are you going? I thought you were coming with me?"
"I did. Now I'm leaving. You remember the way back, right? Hey, catch!"
A small black object hurtled through the air at Tory's head. She caught it at the last minute and examined it. It was a black wallet with the monogram E.B. She looked up to see Tim grinning at her.
"Thought you didn't work anymore?" she asked sarcastically.
"I said hardly, babe. Hardly work anymore. Have fun with Vivian!" And then he was gone.
With not a little trepidation Tory tucked the wallet into her back pocket and slipped through the narrow door of the café.
The café was smoky with incense and cluttered with tiny tables, each painted a bright and clashing color. Squeezing her way past them Tory edged over to the counter, looking around and wondering how in the world she was supposed to recognize Vivian.
"There you are!" said a familiar voice with a slight Queens accent, just as light fingertips touched the sleeve of her shirt. "I was wondering if you were going to stand me up." Tory turned and almost gasped aloud with recognition. She didn't know why – she'd never seen this woman before – but there was something incredibly familiar about her.
She was tall and slim, almost ethereal, with long legs that were emphasized by her skinny jeans and tall high heels. Her face was a delicate oval, milky white with a faint smattering of freckles. Her mid-back length hair was very pale, not as white as Tim's but close. Bright green eyes winked at her shock.
"They told you I was a tech geek, didn't they? Didn't mention the model part."
"You model?" Tory asked, although she really wasn't surprised.
"When I was a kid. I wouldn't touch the work now but it's still fun to say. Shall we sit?"
She picked a little, round, two-person table right smack dab in the middle of the restaurant. Tory almost suggested going closer to the wall to gain a little privacy, but quickly saw Vivian's reasoning. They more surrounded they were with chatter, the less likely it was that someone would overhear them.
They had ordered and were sipping at steaming cups of tea before Vivian spoke. "So. What's the work?"
"We need you…"
"Please don't say we. It reminds me that that bastard Jack is lurking in your little shadow. Let's just pretend you're alone in this, hmm?"
Tory chuckled. "Okay, I need you to check some bank records. See if any major money has gone into the accounts of known criminals."
"You're looking for the half and half thing, right? Some money before, some money afterward. He was killed, what, two weeks ago?"
"Two and a half," said Tory quietly. The cheerful camaraderie of the café was suddenly lost on her.
To her surprise, Vivian reached out and gently patted her hand. Tory blushed, the kind gesture making tears tremble at the corner of her eyes.
"It's all right, Tory," said Vivian, looking serious for the first time. "You know why?"
Tory swallowed. "Why?" she managed to get out in a decent approximation of her normal voice.
"Because we're going to get the bastards. Whoops, here's the food! Did you get the Ginger Tofu Stir-fry or did I?"
It turned out to be a wonderful lunch. Tory found herself completely relaxed in Vivian's company. She wondered how much it was simply because Vivian was another woman. She had, after all, been surrounded by men for a very, very long time.
It wasn't until she was walking back to the Subway that she suddenly found the answer to her faint, nagging feeling of déjà vu.
"Lisa," she said out loud, stopping in her tracks. "She reminds me of Lisa."
Their personalities weren't much alike, and neither were their looks. But there was something…their femininity, their professional confidence, their aura of radiant womanhood combined with a hint of fragility.
Tory stood there for a long time thinking it through, letting herself be pushed by the black-clad crowd, her hands shoved deep into her pockets and her gaze abstractly fixed on a glowing neon sign for Chinese take-out.
Suddenly, she grinned. "Nah," she told herself, beginning to walk again, "there's no way…"