First, they collected their baggage. Then it was off to the sepulchral reaches of the long-term parking ramp, via bright tunnels, a smooth gliding tram. Lisa followed Rippner between dark rows of cars-- What was it about airport parking that always seemed so hopeless? She half expected to see skeletons fallen between the rows-- lost souls who'd mislaid their YOU ARE PARKED ON GREEN LEVEL 5 tags. The wheels on their luggage clacked in unison on the stained gray concrete. She walked a distance to the side, out of his reach, slightly behind him. He allowed it. She sensed him sensing her watching him. He kept his free hand in view, clear of his coat. Watching him, she felt almost as though she were the one who might be concealing a weapon. She could almost feel the weight of a gun in her coat pocket.
They reached his car. A silver BMW 325i-- "The baby Beemer for the airport," Rippner said with a smile. He popped the trunk lid and loaded her suitcase and his; then he settled himself behind the wheel. Lisa hesitated at the open passenger door. When she got in, he said, calmly, "There's a Walther in the glove compartment. If you want it."
Lisa just put on her seatbelt.
"And you'll be paying for the parking, too," he said, starting the car. "Sorry."
"Some date you are."
Babbitt's Deli. Shiny glass cases of meats, salads, breads. Bagels in rows like golden spare tires. Lisa was suddenly very hungry. She also realized how dirty she was. She hung back a pace or two while Rippner picked out bagels and cream cheeses and Bob Babbitt, behind the counter, put Rippner's picks into brown paper bags. He was a tall man, Babbitt was, muscular and broad in a white t-shirt that pictured a smiling cartoon bagel in a baseball cap. Dark hair neatly cut. He was in his early thirties, by the look of him; he looked like he might be better suited to dock work. Or special forces operations. He watched Rippner with the deferential air of a man unresentfully following orders.
"And coffee I can do--" Rippner glanced back at her. "Lise, do you mind if we don't eat here?"
He asked guilelessly. It seemed to come easily for him: his eyes simply switched from "chilling" to "innocent." She thought of the gun in the glove compartment. She thought how, already, this had gone further than it should. But she thought, too, that they both looked like they'd been dragged backwards through a mile of dusty ductwork (which wasn't at all far from the truth), and she saw the look on Bob Babbitt's face when Rippner spoke to her: open, friendly. He knew Rippner, or at least Rippner had never given him reason not to trust him, and that, oddly, was reassuring.
"Sure," she said. If nothing else, Babbitt had had a good look at her. It'll be a help, won't it, when I turn up missing--
Rippner smiled. "Great." He looked back at Babbitt. "So, coffee I can manage-- but if you've got any juice, Bob, that'd be peachy. We'll take a quart of milk, too."
Rippner's apartment. Spendy, spacious but not excessive. Kitchen to the left, dining area. Living area to the right. Light brown L-sofa (fabric, not leather), entertainment center. Straight ahead, set against the rear wall, steps going to a second level. On the wall over the stairs, a movie poster, very large. Deco. Shades of copper and bronze. A woman's face, faced left, grayish-pale, her eyes closed. Above her, a word--
"Metropolis," Lisa breathed. "A quad. My God-- is it--"
"Original. Yep. Did a job in Berlin, took it in trade." He nodded through the living area. "There's a bathroom through there, if you'd like to clean up."
"No, thanks. I'll--"
"Give me time to drug the juice." Rippner winked at her.
"Fine." Lisa cleared her throat. What the hell am I doing here? "You do that. I'll wash my hands."
She crossed the living area; behind her, Rippner called: "Need anything from your suitcase, Lise?"
"Won't be here that long, will I?"
Guest bathroom. Plenty of white, plenty of chrome. Gray fluffy towels, good soap. It smelled of mint and grapefruit. Lisa shut and locked the door, washed her hands and face, straightened her dirty blouse and her mussed hair.
She looked at her face in the round mirror over the basin. "Never took you for an idiot, Reisert," she said to herself.
She went to leave. Then she paused. To the right of the mirror was a medicine cupboard, bolted to the wall. She opened it. A bottle of aspirin, a bottle of antacid tablets. Extra washcloths. Three new toothbrushes, toothpaste, mouthwash. Bars of pale green soap in wax paper. And a safety razor. An old-fashioned one with a chrome handle, possibly an antique. No comfort strips and cheap multiple blades: a screw-down head with a single line of shining steel at its leading edge. And a box of spare blades behind it, against the rear of the cupboard.
She reached for the extra blades. She lifted the box, held it in her hand--
-- and put it back. She switched off the light and left the bathroom.
Rippner was coming down the stairs. His face looked scrubbed; his hair was damp, combed back off his forehead. He, too, smelled of grapefruit-and-mint soap. Lisa found herself wondering why she noticed.
"Thought I'd--" He smiled slightly, gestured toward the kitchen. "Shall we?"
Of course she let him go first.
In the kitchen, at the counter, Rippner said: "You know, that first time we met-- I'm almost disappointed you didn't figure it out." He pulled tubs of cream cheese from one of the two paper deli bags, placed them on the counter. He then removed a bagel from the second bag and reached for a knife block next to the sink. Lisa's breath hitched as he took out what was far too Jason Voorhees to be a bread knife. "You see, there was that knife--"
She'd made her own knife-block reach during the last three syllables. Rippner stared at the meat cleaver in her hand.
"Whoa, Lise. Whoa, whoa, whoa--"
"You don't have a bagel slicer?"
"Umm... no." He set the knife on the counter. He set the bagel next to it. "I was just going to show you--"
"Only a fool or a character in a slasher flick would hold a knife the way I held that Ka-Bar."
Lisa frowned. "Go on."
"See, that knife-- uh, Lise, would you mind--" Lisa hesitated, then laid the cleaver on the counter; Rippner continued: "That was a fighting knife. An offensive weapon for use against an armed opponent. You don't want to pretend like you're poking holes in Janet Leigh in the shower with it; you want to use it to disarm and cripple or kill an enemy. A stupid Anthony Perkins grip like the one I used is just as likely to get you punctured as it is your opponent. And it leaves you wide open to attack. Like I was when you belted me with that hockey stick."
"Here--" Rippner picked up the knife by the blade and turned the handle toward her. "I'll show you. Take it, Lise."
She took it.
"Overhand," he said. "Come on; pretend you're Michael Myers."
"You don't look anything like Jamie Lee Curtis."
"I know; it's my girlish good looks." He smiled. "C'mon: overhand."
Lisa gripped the handle, braced her thumb on the butt. She brought her hand toward her shoulder, a stabbing pose, the blade toward Rippner--
-- and he smacked her exposed knuckles, hard. Lisa yelped and dropped the knife.
"Ow--! Damn it--"
Rippner chuckled. "Here: pick it up." He stepped back, gave her some space. Lisa retrieved the knife from the floor.
"Okay, now: point it at me." Rippner held his hands to the sides, loosely, watching her. "Fingers underneath, thumb to the side. Or against the blade guard: whatever makes you comfortable--"
"Pointing it at you makes me feel pretty comfortable, Jackson."
He smiled. "Fair enough. Keep your wrist straight--"
He stepped out of the blade's way, to the side. "You've taken a standard-issue self-defense class, Lise, right? Balanced stance--"
He moved in beside her. Behind her. He reached around her and put his hand over hers on the knife handle. Lisa's heartbeat stepped up: a product of awareness, proximity, slight alarm, slightly something else. Rippner pushed her hand forward in a slow, smooth punching motion. "Don't commit your weight. Feel the motion through your chest. And: there. You just hit me in the heart. Or I hit you."
"In the heart--"
"The hockey stick I pull aside with my free hand. I simply speed up the natural motion of your swing. And you're wide open--"
"Just like you."
She tried the punch again, this time faster. She felt a whistling sensation in the muscles of her chest. She also felt Rippner's breath on her neck and right ear. She lowered the knife, knowing there wasn't nearly enough space between them.
"I like my bagels toasted," she said.
"Toasted bagels: coming right up." Rippner took back the knife. "Why don't you pour the juice, Lise? Glasses: second cupboard."
Bagels, cream cheese, coffee, orange juice. A quiet breakfast. Those eating it were slightly more dirty than they might prefer, but, other than that, the proceedings were utterly civil. Right. Lisa sipped her second glass of fresh-squeezed and frowned.
"Very likely the understatement of the year, but this probably wasn't my brightest idea."
Rippner stirred his coffee. He took milk, no sugar. "Then why are you here?"
"Honestly? I don't know."
"Mind if I take a guess?"
"This isn't going to be another shot at 'crazy-naked,' is it?"
"No." Rippner smiled. He took a browned bagel half from the plate between them and reached for the walnut spread. "I think, on a very elemental level-- or a very primitive one-- you feel comfortable around me."
Lisa didn't reply. She set down her glass and watched him spread nut-lumpy cream cheese on the bagel half he'd taken; she said, suddenly: "That's the other raisin bagel."
"You said the raisin were the best; you've already had one."
"Are there OCD issues at work here that I'm not aware of, Lise--?"
She held out her hand. "Give."
"I paid for these bagels, Jackson."
"And I will pay you back for these bagels."
"No, you won't. Bagel: now."
"Do you mind the walnut--"
She cleared her throat sharply; he passed her the bagel half.
"Thank you," Lisa said. Rippner rose, went to the counter, rummaged in the bagel bag. "You're right," she added.
With his back half-turned, he said: "It's the raisins. They're more like sultanas--"
"No, not that-- but you're right: they are-- I do feel comfortable around you."
"Ah." Smiling slightly, Rippner bisected another bagel and popped the halves in the toaster. "Do you want to know why?"
Lisa licked cream cheese from her thumb and reached for the coffee carafe. "Tell me."
Rippner turned. He crossed his arms loosely against his chest and leaned against the counter, watching her pour. She tipped the carafe his way; he nodded; she topped off his cup, too. "Because you believe-- no, you know-- you can beat me."
Lisa paused with her fingers on the handle of her cup. "Right."
"Not that you'll have to. Not today, maybe not again. And there's one other thing--"
"You're enjoying the danger. Just a little. The monster in his lair--"
She set her cup down. "I'm--"
"You're a good person, Lise. Of course you are." Rippner rescued his new bagel from the toaster and re-seated himself. "Admit it: you're getting just the tiniest bit of a thrill out of this."
"Think so highly of ourselves, do we, Mr. Rippner?"
"I was talking about the bagel, Miss Reisert. Not everyone could cross me over a raisin bagel from Babbitt's."
"Or maybe I've got a self-destructive streak you haven't seen."
"Do you, Lise? Do you think you're putting yourself in harm's way by being here?"
"Am I, Jackson?"
She looked up from her coffee, met his eyes.
He might have said, "It depends on how you define 'harm.'" All she heard was "No."
He looked at her for a long moment, and she saw something new in his blue-sky eyes. Not cold, not psychosis, not hardness or cynicism. Not affection, either: she had yet to imagine that. No: this was more in the way of simple thoughtfulness. Relaxed, quiet. Open.
He said, so quietly that she wondered if he'd simply sent the words from his head to hers: "What if I wasn't meant to succeed?"
"What are you saying, Jackson?"
"'Do I have your attention?'"
"One of Keefe's catchphrases, isn't it? What if I told you--" He paused, frowning slightly.
"Told me what? Jackson--"
"I'm just--" His brows worked over his clear eyes. "I'm not sure if this will be a step forward or a step back."
"You're assuming there is an 'us.'"
"You're right." The frown left his face. A smile didn't quite replace it. "Job security. New deputy director of Homeland Security. Piles and piles of money going toward keeping America safe. But what does that mean, really? What's the threat? People need reminders. A demonstration. To justify appropriations that might otherwise be earmarked for goody-goody crap like education or the environment. So-- they hire me."
"That's an 'us'-level-clearance area, Lise."
She bit her lower lip. "So, they--"
"They hire me not to kill Keefe. Something high-profile, something loud and flashy, something-- let's be honest-- slightly ridiculous. Above all, something non-lethal. Let's face it, Lise: if they wanted him dead, they'd've sent someone to shoot him. Not me: I'm a crap shot. But I do have a certain talent--"
"You're telling me it was a setup." Lisa pushed back from the table. She stood.
"It was all a setup."
Rippner rose, too, watching her. He stepped around the table, casually, and Lisa edged away from him. "Why me?"
"Ah, that. Why indeed? Why not one of the other managers? Why not Cynthia-- well, okay, let's be realistic: not Cynthia." He took the empty bagel plate and his smaller plate, placed them in the sink. "Honestly? I profiled the entire managerial staff at the Lux. You won: you were resilient yet pliable, you're tough yet hobbled by familial obligations and loyalties. Physically-- in purely combat terms-- we're a fairly close match. I didn't want someone five times my size. I just had to wait for our schedules to mesh."
Lisa's chest felt hollow. "You wanted me to beat you."
"Not as badly as you actually did, but yes, I was hoping you'd--"
Her hand snapped out half-fisted and caught him in the jaw. She froze; Rippner froze. They mutually braced up. His eyes for a second were icy-shocked, furious. Then he took a deep breath, and his shoulders loosened. He'd bitten his lip. With the edge of his right thumb, he wiped a streak of blood from the corner of his mouth.
"Step back, then," he said, ruefully.
"I'm-- Shit." Lisa looked around, settled for handing him a paper napkin. "I shouldn't have done that--"
"Of course you should. I used you; I hurt you; you're mad."
She watched him dab the blood from his mouth. "Why did you follow me home?"
"Why didn't I let you go, go to a Plan B?"
"By that time, the demonstration was over. I knew that. The cops pick me up, and I'm nothing but a garden-variety psycho with a revenge complex against the girl who screwed up his sinister plans. I have my trial en banc-- no jury, please: plenty of federal charges, so I'm packed off to a Super Max. From which I am 'transferred' a week later. Jackson Rippner the man is free; Jackson Rippner the prisoner number will continue to file motions for habeas until 2015 or so. Hell, it was harder shaking the state counts. Those Florida judges are worse than pit bulls."
"Did Keefe know?"
"No. He's a decent man. You said it; it's true."
"What about you?" Lisa asked quietly. "Are you a decent man, Jackson?"
"I spy on people. I kidnap, threaten, and hit women. I hire killers to fire rockets at children. So you tell me, Lise: am I a decent man?"
For a long moment, she was silent. She glanced away. "I'm not sure." Then she looked back at him evenly. "I should go now."
"I'll drive you--"
"I'll get a cab, thanks."
"Then-- Okay." He pursed his lips, paused. "I'll get your suitcase."
Five minutes. Just under. Three minutes standing on the sidewalk outside his apartment building, three minutes on a chilly gray morning under a sky lightly drizzling, three minutes while she remembered that her cell phone was in her suitcase and went nowhere where she could open her suitcase and fish it out. A minute while she stood again inside the foyer. Twenty seconds while she stood within touching distance of Rippner's door.
She rang the bell. A brief delay before Rippner opened: just long enough for him to check whatever video surveillance he might have on the door. Not long enough for her to change her mind. Not that she was planning on changing her mind: something inside her had it in its head to charge straight forward, all pounding feet and rolling shoulder muscles, just like her mode of attack on the hockey field, not bright exactly but strong and efficient, and--
-- the door opened. Rippner's dirty blue dress shirt was untucked and unbuttoned over his tee. He hid more smile than he showed. "Forget something, Lise?"
Thankfully, that terrible metaphor stumbled to a halt. Unfortunately, her self-assurance did, too. "Umm, no--"
"Then what--" He leaned around her, glanced at the entryway behind her. She let him look for enemies who weren't lurking in her vanguard. She fingered his t-shirt over his left pectoral, and all the motion left his body. It was as though she'd put that knife to his chest. He remained still, quiet but alert, deliciously cautious, as she kissed him.
Force wouldn't have worked. That's how good he is, she thought: he knew that. Technically, yes, he might have forced her. But he knew her, and he knew that part of her history, and he could guess accurately that she would have fought him as near to her death or his as she could manage. So he'd done the sensible thing, the thoughtful thing, the most devious and pleasurable thing, and-- as he might have viewed the preceding hour or two or six or so, from his side of the equation, so to say-- the laziest thing and let her take the lead.
So now she was stunned and exhausted, but in a good way, and she was tingling with contact immediate and immediately past. She was lying out of the company of her dusty clothing, showered but lightly sweated, under and on a tangle of blankets and smooth white sheets on Rippner's bed, with Rippner pillowing his head on her belly; and all she could find to bother her was the fact that she felt neither guilty nor sickened.
She asked the textured ceiling: "Is there something wrong with me?"
Rumbled Rippner, from a point north of her navel and south of her chin: "Mine's hardly a professional opinion, but I'd say you're functioning perfectly."
She was so relaxed she couldn't even-- hell, she said it out loud: "I can't even blush at that."
"Well, I don't think I can move--" -- and Rippner let out a sound between a sigh and a deep purring-- "-- so I'd say you're ahead, Lise."
"I don't believe this."
"Could you be more specific?"
She considered. She had the fingers of one hand tangled in his thick hair. She tugged gently, met his eyes when he raised his head. "Why aren't you trying to hurt me?"
"What purpose would that serve?"
"The first time we met, you tried to kill me."
"And look how that turned out. I miscalculated, Lisa. I underestimated you. I'm not an idiot: I can learn from my mistakes. You think about it: you far more nearly killed me."
"So-- Do you really want to hear this? Or will it freak you out?"
"I'm feeling eminently unfreakable at the moment."
"I'm more a thinker than a brawler. I may have been in the midst of a very quiet tantrum when I first said it, but I meant it when I said I might steal you."
"So you've stolen me."
"Alright-- and feel free to doze off; it's been a long day-- I gave it some thought. I gave you some thought. Us. All this while I was recuperating, so at least thirty percent of it you can blame on Percoset. I thought, What do I want from her? Not revenge-- though I could have set it up-- no: You beat me fair and square. Moreover, the mission ended as planned-- if a bit more painfully than I'd hoped it would. So that left an array of alternatives. Contact. Interaction. Sex. How to set it up: Drugs? Kidnapping? Short-term, crude, risky. No potential for growth. Release, not pleasure. I thought: What can I offer her? I thought about you, Lise: Guarded but strong. Level-headed. Devoted to your job. And-- and this was a bit of a guess-- something of an adrenaline junkie. You feed on tension. You're athletic; I've seen how well you handle yourself physically--"
"And all of that-- all of that adds up to what? What do I want from you, Jackson?"
"The same things I want from you, Lise. We're not the marrying kind--"
"You can't assume that about me."
He smiled. "Any guy who got between you and your job, you'd eat him alive. And not in a way that would leave a stupid vacant smile on his face."
"Like the stupid vacant smile you had on your face when-- Oh." She stopped; her cheeks managed that blush. "You're right, aren't you--?"
She went quiet. She felt him settling toward a doze; her body wanted very much to follow suit. But her head wasn't quite ready. She asked:
"What about that man at my father's house?"
Rippner shifted against her, growling languidly. "Burns? What about him?"
"I killed him, Jackson."
"Yes, you did. He was shooting at you, and you shot back--"
"With an SUV: yes. You're not listening: I killed him. I killed a man--"
"Who was threatening you and your father."
"You told me it was a setup, Jackson. God-- God damn it. Was making me a murderer part of--"
"Wait. Wait wait wait. Lisa: shh--"
"Explain it, then, Jackson. What the hell was he doing there?"
"He wasn't following orders. He was supposed to get clear. But he didn't like the pup telling him what to do--"
"Me, Lise. Burns was old-school. Bright-light interrogations and rubber hoses, all that crap. He wanted you and your father in a cellar, tied to chairs-- Never mind that: Our bosses gave me lead on the job, made him my go-fer, and he didn't like it. I called him; I let him know you were on your way--"
"Wait. I had your phone--"
"Like I didn't have a spare. The hardest part was making him believe it was me: I could hardly talk. And then he ignored me anyway--"
"And I--" She took her hand from his hair; she stared forward at a point beyond his left shoulder. "I should feel sick. I don't. Is there something wrong with me--?"
"I won't say he was an idiot and he had it coming. He shouldn't have been there. He knew that. He disobeyed an order, and it got him killed. It turned you into a killer. He behaved unprofessionally, and what happened to him was his own damn fault. Not yours."
"Not my fault." She caught his hair again, near his right temple; she turned his face to hers and looked into his eyes. "Can I believe that, Jackson?"
"If you trust me enough to ask, you can."
"Why don't I feel sick?"
"'Cause you've been given a freebie."
"You killed a human being out of necessity and without remorse. He had the chance to avoid the situation; you didn't. You're not a murderer, Lise. Speaking as one who's worked around murderers, I should know."
"That's very-- No, wait: that is comforting." She blinked at him, suddenly sleepy. "I believe you, Jackson."
"Good girl." He laid his head again on her belly. "Now for the true test--"
"I'm going to sleep now. How about you?"
"I don't-- Sure. Yeah."
"Goodnight, then, Lise."
She watched him close his eyes. She felt his breath on her skin. She felt awareness leave his muscles like a soul might leave a corpse: a loosening, a growing heaviness. Not really corpse-like, though, not at all: a blanketing warmth where his skin touched hers. And then a moment that even the most inveterate lover might experience: the awkward division of unconsciousness. She rested her fingers lightly again in his hair and closed her eyes. Almost too easily, she fell asleep.
She woke up alone. But that's another story...