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The Art of Lying
Just as he'd always done, the Keeper had taken care of everything.
In 1978, that had meant placing the shattered, withdrawn, socially maladroit 11 year old girl with a foster family who had been kind, loving, and most importantly, third generation members of the Committee who had reported back Sydney Bloom's every move until she was 18 years old.
In 1979, it had been securing a place for Nora Bloom at Shady Glade, paying for the private assisted living facility and round the clock nursing staff personally. For 17 years, three different nurses had watched over Nora as she had stared into nothingness. Right up until the night Jackie Singer had called him to tell him Sydney had taken Mrs Bloom, and the line had gone dead.
In 1990, it meant making certain that, two days after a lamplighter named Alexis Miller had left East Germany with Dr and Samantha Bloom, a former MI-6 agent named Oliver Sampson was pulled off a flight to Los Angeles by Orly Airport security regarding mislabelled luggage, and as a result, Sampson missed his flight to Los Angeles.
And in 1995, it meant installing Sydney under the pseudonym "Caroline Flores" in a private hospital in New Mexico where she would be hooked up to the most advanced monitoring equipment in existence, with the promise that if there was even so much as a flicker on her EKG, Sampson would get the call before the Committee would.
The Keeper always took care of everything.
Even when that meant, one rainy night in 1997, Nora Bloom was found lying in a pool of her own blood, a neat round hole in her temple, the gun still warm in her hand.
Oliver firmly believes she comes to him because she hates him. And that hatred gives her permission she would never normally grant herself outside of extreme circumstances.
The first time was the morning after the night they had found Nora's body.
They'd been living in a rented house in Portland, trying to track down an associate of Dr Bloom's from Stanford in the early 1970s. It had been a long shot, but then, all of their shots had been long since Samantha and Duncan had tried going into VR, two days after they'd left the Bloom house in Pasadena, only to discover they could not make a connection.
The Keeper had sworn that none of the equipment in Dr Boom's home laboratory had been touched. The phantom phone line was still up and running. The power still hummed along the wires, but someone had shut down Dr Bloom's system.
No more trips into VR.5. No more desperate attempts to reach the comatose Sydney through fibreoptic cables and images and impulses transmitted faster than thought via goggles. No more following labyrinthine trails through the unsuspecting subconscious minds of their targets at the other end of phone lines.
The most obvious explanation, of course, had been Joseph Bloom had ripped the guts out of his own experiment. So the Blooms and Duncan had been forced to rely on Oliver's experience as an agent, tracking down leads and clues the old-fashioned way, without any VR shortcuts.
In Portland, they had found Dr Naran—dead in his home. No immediate signs of violence other than the back door Oliver had broken into in order to gain access. While Duncan had rummaged through the man's office, Sam had tried to call Nora to tell them they'd reached another dead end.
There had been no answer on the other end of the line.
Sam had been the one to find her. She'd ignored Oliver's whispered orders to let him go first. Pushed past him and then dropped to her knees in the kitchen with a strangled scream. Duncan had dragged her away from her mother's body, while Oliver had swept the rest of the house to make sure the danger was past.
Oliver wanted to believe that Nora Bloom had died because she was trying to save her daughters. But he knew that would be a lie. The truth was, he had suspected for some time that Nora had been passing messages back to the Abernathy's people. It was too big a coincidence that every place they'd gone in their desperate search for Dr Bloom that first year, they'd been found. He'd tried speaking to Duncan about it once, and discovered that the boy's loyalty to the Blooms made it somewhat impossible for him to suspect Sydney and Samantha's mother of collaborating with the enemy. So in the end, he stayed silent, until they found Nora.
Duncan and Samantha blamed the rogue faction of the Committee. Oliver knew better. They would have left her brain undamaged. Which only left three possibilities. One was likely, one was too dangerous to contemplate, and one seemed too good to be true.
Oliver found he couldn't even summon up a ghost of irony as he prayed it had been suicide.
No-one, Committee or otherwise, should have been able to track them from the rented house in Portland where Nora had died. Oliver had made sure of that. They'd driven all night, Sam's blouse and slacks stained with Nora's blood and covered by Oliver's coat. They'd crossed the border near dawn, the border guards barely glancing at their passports—none of them bearing the names they were born with—before waving them through the checkpoint.
Duncan had gone out for food, multi-coloured Canadian bills clutched in his hand, muttering something about egg rolls or perhaps egg cremes. Oliver, to be honest, hadn't paid as much attention as he should have.
They had finally stopped at a motor lodge outside small town across the Canadian border. The latest in a string of safe houses, dingy motels, ports in the storm. Oliver had paid for two rooms in cash—one for himself and Duncan, one for Sam.
Sam hadn't spoken since they'd left the house. She'd slammed the motel room door in Oliver's face, leaving him standing awkwardly on the concrete path outside, staring at the cheap curtains on the other side of the glass. He'd leaned against the wooden railing, the sound of early morning birdsong almost drowned out by the sound of traffic on the rain-slick highway on the other side of the car park.
He'd waited as long as he could, before he let himself in with the key. Heard the water running, and knew.
Something inside Samantha had broken. Maybe it had been living for 17 years believing her mother dead, only to have so brief a time with her again before circumstances had ripped her remaining family completely apart. Maybe it was just the stress of living the last year constantly on the run, always looking over her shoulder, never sure who to trust. Maybe it was just realising that with every day that passed, the hope of finding her father, and healing her twin (and by extension herself) grew thinner and less substantial and closer to being an impossible dream.
Oliver hadn't realised how far she'd gone until he'd found her, curled in the corner of the motel shower stall, scalding hot water creating clouds of steam in the tiny tiled room and leaving her pale skin pink and raw. The part of his brain that could still function coldly and rationally had noted that the water swirling into the rusting drain was clear. She hadn't harmed herself. No cuts, no slashes. Just burns no worse than had she spent the day too long in the sun.
The rest of his mind kept transposing his vision so that it was Sydney, and not Samantha, who needed saving. Reminding him that he'd promised to keep her safe, and failed at every turn.
Sam had clawed at his face and arms as he'd hauled her out, roughly shaking her with a mixture of fury and fear and relief.
He'd pulled the cheap coverlet from the bed and wrapped it around the shivering girl, 29 years old regressed to 11 again. Her blonde hair hung in rat's tails around her face as she rocked back and forth in his arms. Her nails had scored his cheek and she'd struck him two glancing blows which would leave bruises, before he'd pinned her arms to her sides. The scratches stung, his face feeling hot and swollen as her struggles had slowed, and then finally ceased.
He can't remember how it had started. Who had been the first to move. The pain in his torn cheek had dimmed to an echo as she'd bitten his bottom lip hard enough to draw blood, and his shirt and vest joined her bloodstained clothes on the floor between the bed and the wall. Her skin was still feverishly hot from the shower as he ran his hands down her sides, over her thighs. He kept his eyes closed as she tugged at his clothes, reaching down to undo the fly of his trousers and guide him inside her.
It was brief, and it was brutal, and it was over before Duncan arrived with two grease-stained paper sacks of Chinese take-away and Styrofoam cups of black coffee.
He'd raised an eyebrow at the long scratches across Oliver's cheek, but never asked him the cause.
"I don't think Dr B's all that stable," Duncan had told him the next afternoon, as they packed.
Oliver'd paused in the act of zipping his duffel bag shut. "What makes you say that?"
"The night at the train station... I didn't remember it until after we'd gone in. You know, the three of us. But after the train station, Dr B took me into VR. He was testing me. Sam too, I thought. I saw the two of them in the workshop. But it was all just a mind game."
"What do you mean?"
"He made a world and dropped me into it, like a whole Mirror Universe thing, totally Spock with the beard, you know? This whole big film noir kind of place, with Sam as Barbara Stanwyck. He told me it was to see if I was loyal. If he could trust me to protect Sam and Syd. The thing is... when I asked Sam, she didn't know anything about it."
"So he took you in alone. But let you believe Samantha was in... there. With you."
"I dunno. He was always kinda crazy—I mean, the guy's a genius. Genius usually equals crazy. But there's crazy, and then there's crazy."
They had carried their bags out to the car in silence, and Oliver'd looked up to see Samantha framed in the window of the hotel room, her hand twitching the curtain aside so that it closed and he was left staring at the blank whiteness like a sky full of storm-clouds.
She comes to him when Duncan is too gentle. When she can no longer stand how he looks at her like she's all he has in the world, and he'd die to keep her safe. Oliver understands how that kind of devotion can become a burden, but he judges her for it anyway.
It's not often. Sometimes weeks, even months went by between encounters. But eventually, she always comes back to him. She slips into Oliver's bed in the small hours of the night, and afterward they never talk about it. About the fact that it's not about him—or her. That it's about ghosts.
Samantha was nothing like her sister.
Sydney was like a child in a woman's body, gangly and loose-limbed. Unsure of herself, and uncomfortable in her own skin. She'd had an annoying habit of hiding her face behind the curtain of tangled blonde hair like a child playing at being invisible. As if, if she can't see out, then no-one can see in.
Where Sydney moved as if she were all knees and elbows, Samantha was graceful. Sydney had always been thin and pale and she swam in oversized flannel shirts and clomped around in workman's boots. Samantha could make a pair of jeans and a faded shirt look tailored.
There was nothing feminine about Sydney Bloom her except her sense of fragility. As if she were made of glass or paper. Something delicate and fragile that would be destroyed by wind and rain and casual cruelty.
Samantha wasn't fragile. There was an intensity to her that her sister lacked. A focus that burned behind her green eyes and made both of the men in her life uncomfortable for different reasons.
Sydney had barely spoken above a whisper, even when she was happy.
Samantha's voice was authoritative, even when she and Oliver were arguing. She never pleaded with him, or cajoled. She saved up her fury and her scorn and only used it as a weapon where it could cut deepest.
Afterward, she and Duncan would disappear, and Oliver would pretend he wasn't glad of the silence.
Oliver knew that Duncan always sought the girl he had known inside the woman she had become, and rather than bringing them closer together, it seemed only to create a gulf between them that reared its head at odd moments of calm. When they were fighting for their lives, they were a unit; anticipating each other, acting as a cohesive whole. But in the periods of waiting, the hours between bouts of activity, Samantha would withdraw into herself and shut her childhood friend out.
And seek Oliver out instead.
Duncan knew, but didn't seem to mind. It made Oliver want to confess to him, as if the boy were a priest and he was a penitent sinner.
But he never did.
Instead, he took her in, when she knocked at his door. And afterwards, he would stare at the girl sleeping in his bed, and see who she wasn't, and mourn.
"Is it Alex or Sydney?"
They lie, tangled up in hotel room sheets that have been bleached so many times that they feel like sandpaper and smell faintly of chemicals. It's Chicago, this time. Duncan had disappeared into the city that afternoon, and is tethered to them by an untraceable mobile phone that only he and Samantha, and the Keeper have the number to.
They always travel with phones. It's risky, allowing themselves the opportunity to be traced. But then, that's part of it. They want to be found. It's worth the risk, if someday it's Joseph Bloom on the other end of the line.
Oliver stares down at her, seeing the curve of her cheek in the dimness.
"Who do you see, when you look at me like that? Is it really me?"
The question takes him by surprise. He doesn't know how to answer, and that alone tells him something uncomfortable about himself that he's been avoiding.
He wondered, not for the first time, if Dr Bloom had managed to impart of any Alex's memories to Sam when he'd made his ill-fated attempt to download Samantha's experiences into Alex. The reasoning, according to Sam, was that if Alex could assume Samantha's place as her father's assistant, somehow this would allow Samantha to leave the Committee. Finally be free.
Alex, Samantha had told him, had volunteered. He'd bitten back the response he'd wanted to make, choosing instead to merely nod, ignoring how Duncan had watched him for the rest of the night.
Alex had died because of the woman in his arms.
The only woman he had ever truly loved had sacrificed herself to the Bloom family, and part of him would always despise Joseph Bloom for that. But the truth was, he'd always hated himself more than he'd hated Bloom. Because if Alex hadn't loved him, then maybe she would be alive and sane and free.
"Are you going to answer me?" she asks, her voice flat. "Or are you going to just keep on fucking the only available green-eyed blonde?"
"That's crude," Oliver replies. "And beneath you."
"Is it?" Samantha pulls away from him, sitting on the end of the bed in the dark as she tugs on her jeans. Her hair is mussed as she pulled the tee-shirt over her head, and her green eyes are like a cat's as they reflected the dim light back at him.
"You've killed for her," she says, and he knows that she wasn't talking about Alexis Miller any longer. "Would you die for her?"
He doesn't respond. But that's all the answer she needs.
After she leaves, he smokes half a cigarette before stubbing it out in a glass for the bathroom, telling himself it doesn't matter.
The call from the Keeper comes in the middle of the night.
Oliver had come awake instantly, somewhat unsurprised to find his pistol in his hand. He carefully replaced the safety, setting it on the nightstand as he sat up. "What? When?"
"This morning. We're not sure."
"Will you... Will you be making the funeral arrangements?"
"No—no, Sampson. She's not dead. She's gone," the Keeper had repeated, and Oliver's lips moved without making a sound. His eyes prickled with tears.
"How?" he finally asked, trying to keep his voice level.
"We think it was Bloom, but there's no way to know. We've gone over all the surveillance, but no-one came in or out of that room but the staff. She was taken down to the lab for an MRI, and when the technician came back to take her upstairs, the gurney was empty."
"But she's alive?"
"We have no reason to think otherwise."
Oliver had hung up, and stared at the phone in his hand as if it was a strange and mythical creature bearing hope.
He'd prepared himself for almost any other eventuality.
He had no idea what to do with hope.
Oliver had expected Duncan to have been overjoyed at the news. Instead, he leans back in the booth at the diner where they're meeting, heels of his hands pressed to his eyes as if he hasn't slept in weeks.
"If Syd's free, and she's with him... why haven't they found us?"
"Perhaps he doesn't know who to trust," Oliver relied with a shrug.
"You mean he doesn't know about the Keeper and the schism in the Committee?"
"We don't know that. For all we know, he doesn't trust the Keeper, and we're fools blindly blundering about, helping no-one and only harming ourselves."
Once Duncan would have made some comment about how Oliver was a buzz kill, and needed to lighten up. All he did instead was nod, and scrape his dark hair back from his face with his fingers.
"But why's he been running from us?" Duncan asked, as if Oliver would have the answer. "We've gotten so close, and every time, he just disappears again. Why? He talked about needing to trust me—but if it's not me he doesn't trust..."
"You think he doesn't trust Samantha?"
"I don't know what to think."
"Do you trust Samantha?"
He shrugs. "I have to. With Syd out cold, she's all I've got left."
Duncan should be the one to tell her. Duncan, who despite any appearances to the contrary, is no fool, left it to Oliver.
Samantha's face is blank when he tells her. It's a terrible kind of blankness that Oliver hopes is shock, and not something else.
"Alive?" she finally says.
"The Keeper believes so."
Sam's eyes fill with tears and she begins to shake. Duncan should be here, to comfort her. For the millionth time, Oliver repeats the words inside his own mind but never lets them pass his lips as he wraps his arms around her, her tears soaking his shoulder.
He wants to believe they are genuine; needs to believe it. Because if they aren't, then he doesn't know where else he can go. He's already just a ghost of who he was.
For the first time in a year, Oliver isn't afraid Duncan will walk through the door as her hands find the buttons of his shirt. For the first time in over a year, he lets himself see her for who she is as she grips his shoulders, mouth half open and eyes screwed tightly shut as they move against one another.
"Do you love her? Tell me the truth."
"There is no truth."
"Of course you love her. Everybody loves Sydney."
There no bitterness in her voice. That takes him by surprise. He opens his mouth to respond, then shuts it again.
Morgan died because he loved the girl. He'd read all the files, seen how the good Dr Morgan had balked at the Committee's insistence that she was nothing more than a resource to be utilised. Sydney had, in a few short weeks, got completely under his skin. Oliver had assumed her innocence act had been just that—an act. A sham.
He'd quickly realised she had no idea how to use her femininity as a weapon. That not only had it never occurred to her, but that had he suggested it, she would have laughed in genuine disbelief. He remembered quite clearly the first time he had seen her with Lance Jackson on the basketball court. Sydney had been completely unaware of how the lieutenant's eyes had followed her every move. How they'd lingered on her hip and shoulder as he crowded her, ostensibly after the ball, but obviously after a different prize all together.
Oliver remembered the flash of something too weak to be jealousy but too strongly possessive to be mere annoyance. He'd written it off immediately, furious with himself for even entertaining such weakness.
But he was possessive of Sydney. He jealousy guarded her rare smiles, and bursts of child-like enthusiasm, and most of all, her trust. It had been hard-won, but once obtained, it was complete. It was like a child's trust that way—no half-steps or half-measures. It was the kind of faith that somehow made him feel less like a murderer and more like a knight in tarnished armour, on a quest to redeem himself. And the next thing he knew his entire life had been turned upside down and he had killed for her not once, but over and over again. He'd soaked his hands in blood and he'd do it again in a heartbeat.
"Do you love your sister?"
Sydney had never mastered the art of lying. Not even to save herself.
Samantha could smile and lie and make you believe the lie was the truth. Make you want to believe it.
She comes to him because she hates herself.
When he stops hating himself, he'll stop opening the door.