Set the Fire
I'm miles from where you are,
I'm laying down on the cold ground,
And I – I pray that something picks me up,
And sets me down in your warm arms . . .'
'Set the Fire to the Third Bar' Snow Patrol with Martha Wainwright
Eppes House, Pasadena – Later that same night
Don awoke with a sudden start, and realised he must have been dozing. A charred lump of log had shifted in the grate and collapsed into the pile of ashes below. He looked around him and rubbed his eyes. It was long past eleven o'clock. The game must have ended awhile ago, and the television was silent.
The room was dark and bathed in shadows. The fire-glow made them dance on the walls. Only two of the table lamps had been switched on, and were surrounded by pools of amber light. Dad sat bathed in the circle of one of them, his reading glasses balanced on his nose. He was engrossed in his latest book club novel and pencilling the odd note in the margin. Charlie lounged in the other armchair, a precarious stack of papers on his knee. Mid-terms, Don guessed, by the look of it. He didn't seem to be paying them all that much attention.
"Hey," he murmured, drowsily, shifting up higher on the couch. "You guys shouldn't have let me fall asleep." He gestured towards the TV screen. "What was the final score?"
"The Ravens beat them, 16-13. McNair scored in the closing minutes." Alan placed his book on the reading table, and peered over the top of his glasses. "And as for the sleeping – we left well alone. Both of us figured you might need it. You were nodding off after five minutes or so. It's been, what you might call, a busy day."
It was on the tip of Don's tongue to argue the point, but on reflection, he thought better of it. By the time he and dad arrived home from the park, he'd felt scratchy and pretty worn out. On the whole, it had been one hell of a day, both physically and emotionally exhausting. First the disquieting news about Lomax, and then the entire memory thing.
So okay, he was prepared to admit it, remembering hadn't been easy. He felt kind of raw and stripped back to the bone, each vivid image like the worse kind of nightmare.
To be honest, he felt shaky and fragile.
Like he'd re-lived the whole thing over again.
But crazy as it sounded, in-spite of the pain, a big part of Don was glad of it. Ever since he'd woken up at the hospital, he'd been wandering, drifting in limbo. Part of his existence had been stolen away, but the lost memories helped to re-fill the hole. They'd given him back a semblance of confidence, and restored his sense of direction; for the first time since he'd been kidnapped, he was beginning to feel more like himself. And that was the crux of the matter, of course, regaining control of his life. At last, he was back on his feet again, and he could claw his way out of the pit.
"Megan called while you were napping." Charlie spoke up for the first time, he sounded a little off-key. "Guess what - there was no sign of Miller when they went to pull him in. Apparently, he's vanished without a trace. Megan had a warrant issued, but there's been no sign of him, so-far."
"Charlie - " Alan was frowning. "This isn't really the time."
"Dad, it's okay."
Don intervened. It really was okay. As news went, he'd kind of expected it. Miller had acted, either out of revenge, or because someone else had ordered the hit. As to whom that someone might be – Don was reluctant to believe it was Redondo. The man may have been as slippery as an eel, but for God's sake, he wasn't invincible.
"Did she happen to mention Gary Walker?" He had to know while the subject was still open. If not, he would call Megan later, and catch-up on the lowdown from her. Walker, more than anyone else he could think of, would know what was happening on the street.
Charlie nodded, and regarded him with unhappy eyes. "It's funny you should ask about that. Walker's pretty adamant the Russians didn't order any hit. He reckons, in the scheme of things, they were cool about working with Lomax. Walker's drawn the same conclusion as you. He thinks Miller pulled the trigger."
"Damn," Don muttered, under his breath. Just when he'd thought it was all over. And as for finding Miller in Los Angeles - he didn't give a rat's ass for their chances. "I guess we have to look on the bright side. At least Redondo's organisation is fried."
"Don," Charlie inhaled abruptly. He was clearly struggling hard with his emotions. "Sometimes, I just don't understand you. How can you sit there and be so sanguine about it? How can you act like you don't care? If you're right, and Miller really did shoot Lomax, then the implications are huge."
"Whoa, let's not get ahead of ourselves, here," Don tried to keep the mood light. "The implications – if there are any - are well and truly over and done with, just as far as we're concerned. One way or another, Redondo's gone. Bet your ass, he won't be bothering us again."
"I hope not." Charlie's brow was furrowed with concern.
"Anyone feeling hungry?" It was Alan, of course, stepping into the breach to play peacemaker. He took off his reading glasses and attempted to change the thorny subject. He gave Don what was supposed to be a meaningful look, and raised an eyebrow in Charlie's direction.
"A cup of coffee would be most excellent. De-caff, of course," Don amended, hastily, after intercepting and correctly reading the look on Alan's face. "Wouldn't want to risk staying awake, even though I spend half the day sleeping."
The deadly eyebrow raised a fraction more, and swivelled around to zero in on him. "Hmm – I realise it must be hard for you, Don, to embrace such an alien concept. Consider it making up for lost time. Let's see, like the last ten years or so."
Alan's voice was loaded with sarcasm. Trust dad not to let him get away with it. When it came to a points-scoring system, Don really should have known.
"Nice," he shook his head with a rueful laugh. "Get all those little hits in while you can."
Alan moved out to the kitchen, and they soon heard the rattle of crockery. Don glanced back over at Charlie, and nodded towards the fire. "So, dad had you outside hauling logs?"
Charlie twitched back to the present. "Huh, sorry – what did you say?"
"Earth to Charlie," Don grinned at him. "And I thought I owned the sole rights to narcolepsy in this house. The fire - " he pointed across at the hearth. "I was saying it's a nice gesture."
Don sighed. This was going to be a lot harder than he'd thought, something was patently eating Charlie. It clearly concerned him and Redondo, and the news they'd received about the hit. Ever since he'd got home from CalSci this evening, Charlie had been moody and preoccupied. No amount of small-talk or changing the subject had shaken Charlie out of his funk. Don knew his brother well enough by now - they needed to get this thing aired.
"So," he bit down hard on the bullet. "You gonna tell me about that bee?"
"What bee?" Charlie was still distracted.
"The bee that crawled up your ass?"
Charlie gave him a glacial look. "There's no need to be quite so vulgar, and besides, you're not really interested."
"I'm interested," Don spread his hands out in front of him in a gesture of supplication. "Come on, Charlie, I promise, I'm interested. Let's get this out in the open, I'm asking politely, what's up?"
"You've been feeling the cold so much lately," Charlie's words took him completely by surprise. He dropped the stack of mid-term papers hap-hazardly onto the floor, and regarded him from under hooded lids. "You know, it really isn't like you. I remember, ever since we were children, you would always turn the air-con switch up higher."
Don felt his jaw drop slightly. Okay, this was a tad surreal. Here he was, trying to be all caring-sharing, and Charlie worried about him feeling the cold. Don took a moment to process the data. It was his fault, he had asked for this, he had been the one to open up the topic. Better see where Charlie was taking this - may as well roll along with things for now.
He shrugged, with an attempt at lightness. "Hey, maybe I'm even cooler than I thought." Even he cringed at the words as they left his mouth. Trite - and so not funny.
"Don't," said Charlie, abruptly. He clearly didn't find it funny, either. "Don't do the same thing you always do. Don't act like it doesn't matter. You don't have to protect me any more. I was there in that quarry, remember?"
"I remember," Don answered him, softly. Yup – now, he could say it in all honesty. "Charlie, about my memory, a lot of things have started coming back to me."
"They have?" Charlie looked up in sudden dismay. "Don – I'm sorry. When did this happen?"
"Don't be sorry – I'm not."
Don turned away and stared into the fire. The flames were burning low and blue as they licked around the whitening logs. He hitched the old afghan a little higher, more out of force of habit than any sudden chill, and settled back against the pile of pillows. Someone, either dad or Charlie, must have slipped them in behind him at some stage, during his impromptu nap.
He was usually such a light sleeper, but yet again, he hadn't even stirred.
The Rip Van Winkle syndrome was one thing, and Charlie was quite right about the other. Ever since he'd come home from hospital, he had indeed, been feeling the cold. Especially in the evening when the sun went down. When night began to steal across the city.
Out here, in California, the darkness always came quickly.
But not tonight. Not figuratively speaking. Don took stock of some things. For the first time in a long, long while, he was beginning to feel warm again. Shades of memories, like fragments of a dream. Or perhaps it was the other way around. He lay back and surfed over the images as they clustered back into his head.
He was lying in front of a roaring log fire.
The flames were high and radiant bright.
Warm, he was warm and wrapped in blankets. It truly felt like his idea of heaven.
He was propped like a king, on pillows and cushions, to support his poor, aching muscles; cocooned and protected in a nest of heat to banish the implacable cold.
Don knew he was safe and sound now, surrounded by comfort and love. Dad was here and so was Charlie, both of them were happy to see him. To his surprise, no-one was angry because he'd been dumb enough to get caught.
Okay, it was a dream, or the memory of a dream. It was all coming back to him now. A feeling of prescience ran through him. It was so eerie looking back in hindsight.
Maybe he'd had a premonition out there?
Yeah, right, he thought, self-consciously. He was a little embarrassed by the notion. He was not usually one for flights of fancy, and since when had he got so whimsical about things? Much more of this, and he'd be hanging up crystals, or sitting cross–legged outside in the yard. It was not that he didn't believe in all that stuff - each to his own - so long as it was harmless. And to be honest, he'd always clung onto the hope there was something more out there.
It was just that he'd never been the type to engage in deep and meaningful conversation with the flowers.
"Yeah," he jolted back to the present. "Sorry – must have drifted for a moment."
He straightened up, and studied his brother, watching orange shadows shift and dance across his face. In the firelight, Charlie looked older. Bowed under and more careworn, perhaps?
Dear God, had he been the cause of this?
The carefully controlled anxiety, the barely discernible weight-loss. Don saw it there - too plainly written - in the uneasiness which clung about Charlie like a cloud.
He felt a rush of sudden affection - affection and gratitude. There were some words he really needed to say here. Words which were along time overdue.
"You know, for a while now, buddy, there's something I've been meaning to say to you."
"If it's about disobeying Megan's advice and driving out to the quarry . . ."
"Nope," Don grinned, despite himself. So okay, maybe the whole older thing was slightly premature. "I'm saving that one for later. It's not about that," he paused, a little unsure of himself. This kind of talk always floored him. He wasn't into self-analysis in any shape or form. It was hard - so damned hard - to talk about stuff like this. Always had been – always would be. He forced himself to take a deep breath. Probably better just to get this over with. "About what you said in the hospital – about how you expected a lot from me?"
"It's okay, you don't have to remind me." Charlie interrupted him, quickly, before he could elucidate further. "I had no right to say those things then. You were sick and depressed, I understand, it's nothing to be ashamed of." He shivered, in-spite of the glow from the fire. "For God's sake - you'd been shot in the head."
"Charlie," Don suppressed a quick smile, and cut in while he still could. Sometimes, Charlie reminded him so much of dad, there was no stopping them once they got going. "Will you slow down and listen for a minute? That isn't what I mean, either. Look – back then, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. Your little spiel was just what I needed."
"Was it?" Charlie stared at him hard, his face working with several emotions. "Seems to me like you're doing it again. I swear you think you're made of Kevlar. There's no shame in admitting you need someone. You don't always have to be the strong one."
"I wasn't – not then - and perhaps not now." Don sought to clarify matters. "Think about it, buddy, can't you see? It was you - you took things out of my hands. You were being the strong one. You've been right there for me and dad, throughout this whole, damned mess. And if we're gonna talk about the Megan thing - " he smiled a little. "Don't think she didn't tell me what you said."
Some of the tenseness between them vanished. Charlie relaxed a little, and gave Don a small grin. "I'll bet she said I was stubborn?"
"Yeah – among a few other choice words."
"Just like my older brother?"
"I think my memory just went again."
"Yeah, right. Selective memory, I hear it can come in handy. Let me guess, pig-headed, mulish, obdurate - "
"Obdurate?" Don laughed. "No – I don't think she mentioned obdurate. And as for the others – I'm pleading the 5th. After all, Megan should know."
And she should, Don couldn't deny it. Megan knew them both pretty well. What she had, in-fact, told him was, how the Eppes men were all alike. How obstinate and uncompromising they were. How fiercely protective of their own.
Don watched as Charlie got to his feet and placed another log on the fire. The flames licked around the dried-out wood, and raised the ambient room temperature even higher. Don leaned back into the bank of pillows. It was warm and pleasantly comfortable. He felt cocooned in a nest of security, safe, and out of harm's way.
Carmine had lurked in the back of his mind during the run-up to the trial. Squatting somewhere in his subconscious, like a grotesque thought-form, made life. Don could actually think of him now, without looking over his shoulder. Without the feeling of loathing which had persistently haunted his dreams. He was free, for the first time in ages. Don faced the truth, and admitted it. At last, the nightmare was over. He had shaken the monkey off his back.
It always comes back to the monsters, Don was almost resigned.
Whether under the bed, or subliminal, they would always be skulking out there.
With hindsight, he realised he'd never been safe. What had happened, it was almost inevitable.
From the moment, he'd gone undercover, and Redondo had first seen his face. There'd been some kind of sick bond between them. The link between a hunter and his prey. Redondo had marked him right from the outset.
One way or another, he'd been his.
Thinking back over the last few months, Don knew he'd been arrogant and stupid, and worse than that, thoughtlessly naïve. He should have entered a witness protection programme until Redondo had been found guilty. In the run-up before he'd been called to the stand, Redondo would have covered all the angles. One of the alternatives he might have considered was using dad and Charlie as leverage.
Dad and Charlie. Don felt sick. Redondo was nothing if not thorough. The man liked to cover all his bases. Don knew him well enough to realise that.
Which took him back to the underground Parking Lot.
The place he was supposed to have died.
Leaving the hit until the last minute – until the eve he was due to give evidence. It had vengeance stamped all over it. It was so Redondo's style. Florid and over-theatrical, just like the man himself. The whole thing was a fait d'accompli.
A twisted game of cat and mouse.
It was over. And yet, it wasn't. Something fundamental had shifted. Don had come to a place inside his head which frightened the hell out of him. He'd been running on empty for so long now, sometimes, barely functioning at all. Paradoxically, it had taken a bullet in the skull to make him re-examine his priorities.
Every cloud has a silver lining.
Yeah, right. Once the sky has cleared.
Don knew he made a difference. It was a platitude, but one he clung on to. His job – if it meant keeping men like Redondo off the street - well, then hey - it had to be worth it. He'd been touched by the response of Megan and his team. By the effort they'd made to find him. But more than anything, and most of all, he'd been bowled over by Charlie and dad.
"Charlie," Don spoke very quietly. He needed to clarify the point. Had to make sure his brother knew how much it all meant to him. "What I wanted, was to tell you how great you've been. Right from the very start. You worked out where Redondo dumped me - then saved our asses when the quarry went up. And ever since then, you've been there for me. I know how much you supported dad."
Charlie gave him an old-fashioned look. It was a long time before he spoke again. When he did, his voice was uneven; soft and muted with emotion. "Consider it payment in due."
"Well, now, this was a good idea." Alan came through from the kitchen and gestured towards the rosy grate. "Setting a fire tonight. There's something a little special about a real fire, now the evenings are getting cooler."
A 'cup of de-caff coffee' appeared to have grown in concept. Alan was carrying a loaded tray which he set down on the table in front of them. There was a plate of chicken sandwiches, left over from lunch in the park, some corn-chips covered in grilled cheese and salsa, and a bowl of fresh tomatoes from the yard. Don's tender stomach gave a growl of protest; there was also an enormous cheesecake. This had appeared from nowhere, and looked about as lethal as his gun.
He surveyed the mini-feast in front of him with a feeling of trepidation. He'd lost too much weight since the shooting, and hadn't really got his appetite back. This was dad being 'oh, so subtle,' and trying to fatten him up.
He looked across at Charlie and dropped him a wink. "So, what do you reckon, Charlie? I think I'm detecting an anomaly. A tiny amount of caffeine compared to, what, a whole ton of saturated fats?"
"Ah," responded Charlie, in all seriousness. "Now we're talking comparative ratio's. I'm thinking that, in quantative terms, the fat will certainly do you more harm."
"Comparative ratio's?" Alan handed them both a paper napkin and then sat back in his chair. "I suppose you two boys think you're clever? Let me tell you, when it comes to quantative terms, as your father, I always get the last say. If John Parks says you should avoid caffeine, Don, then caffeine, you will be avoiding."
"But not cholesterol, obviously," muttered Don, sotto voce.
"Then stick to the tomatoes, son of mine."
In typical, Alan fashion, dad truly did have the last say.
Port de France Airport – Martinique
Miller blinked as he walked out into the sunshine. It was hot after the air-conditioned airport. Heat rose and shimmered off the concrete. Already, his clothes felt damp.
It was easy enough to hail a cab. It was lucky the driver spoke English. He was never gonna get used to the lingo. French was only so much gibberish to him. It had been a short flight across from Miami, approximately three hours or so to Port de France. It had been simple getting out of the country. He'd been amazed at the ease of his escape.
He handed the driver a slip of paper with instructions to his destination. The drive across the island was spectacular, but he wasn't here to admire the scenery. They drove past banana and pineapple plantations, through lush, green aisles of trees. He sat back against the seat and closed his eyes, shutting out the dappled sunlight.
There was plenty of time to explore the island.
He wasn't going back home for a while.
All in all, it had been one hell of a year. The court case – what had happened to Carmine. If he'd known then, what he knew now . . . and it all came down to Agent Eppes.
Lomax had kept tabs on his progress. Shot in the head at point blank range - the man must have the luck of the devil. Apparently, he was out of the hospital now, and expected to make a good recovery. Miller scowled, momentarily. Under the circumstances, it hardly seemed fair.
He'd been tempted to finish Eppes off for good, and his pain in the ass, genius brother. But Lomax had talked him out of it, they needed to let the heat die down. Lomax. The little weasel had been quite right - for a back-stabber, he'd had one or two uses. They had done a deal of sorts with the DA, and managed to evade any fallout. Feeding him a load of mainly useless information in return for prosecution immunity. As far as the Feds themselves were concerned, Redondo's empire was finished. They had their precious agent back and Carmine Redondo was dead.
Lomax had been good for something. He'd papered over the cracks.
Miller smiled, nastily. He had really enjoyed taking him out. The man always was a snake in the grass. He'd betrayed them and done the dirty on Carmine. Easy – it had been so easy. Lomax thought he was a fool, a lackey. He'd been smug and so sure he controlled things. So certain he was the boss. Until the night back at the Freight Warehouse, when he'd felt the gun at his temple. In one, incredulous instant, Lomax had looked up into his eyes.
As payback went, it was long overdue. Especially, after what happened at the quarry. Miller shook his head a little, remembering the shock of the explosions. There was a moment when he'd thought his number was up. It was a goddamned miracle he was alive. A goddamned miracle anyone was alive. The place had gone up like an H-Bomb.
No, finishing Lomax had felt pretty good, but Eppes would have to wait awhile longer. There was no way he could return to LA anytime in the near future. There was plenty for him to do out here, aside from living the high life.
And besides, until he heard to the contrary, he was still paid to do as he was told.
The taxi turned right into a driveway and stopped in front of some wrought iron gates. There was a security camera on one of the gateposts which swivelled around like an eye. After a moment's scrutiny, the gates slid smoothly open. Miller sat forward in the seat as the taxi headed up the drive.
The house at the top was quite beautiful. An Eighteenth-Century, French plantation. It was surrounded by extensive gardens, with a swimming pool off to one side. A veranda ran the length of the building, covered in a profusion of flowers. Miller nodded in admiration, the whole place really was stunning. Pretty much as he'd expected, with no expense spared on restoration.
And no expense spared on the security either. There were more cameras above the veranda. As the taxi slowed and drew to a halt, two ferocious-looking Doberman Pinschers bounded over the lawns to greet them.
Miller paid the driver and waited. There was no way he was getting out yet. Eventually, an armed security guard appeared, and whistled the dogs away. He watched the taxi head off down the driveway and then turned to face the house. The guard showed him up to the veranda, through a pair of mahogany doors. He looked around with appreciation at the air-conditioned, marble interior.
Perfect, it was perfect. And now it was his home.
He waited, filled with curiosity. Unsure of what he might find. Eventually, someone came out to greet him and ushered him to one of the side rooms. A male nurse looked up as he entered, and Miller tried to hide a smirk. The nurse was young, with smooth brown skin. He looked like a matinee idol. Good - this was good, and improving all the time. At long last, life was getting back to normal. Just like it had been in the old days, before the advent of Special Agent Eppes. The luxurious surroundings and the pretty-boy nurse. Things must be better than he thought.
"Mister Roundhouse will see you now." The nurse showed him through to the bedroom.
Miller hesitated on the threshold while his eyes adjusted to the light. There were shutters at both of the windows, and the room was shrouded in shadow. Once Miller could see where he was going, he took a step towards the man in the wheelchair. When he got to within six feet of it, he froze, and gave a gasp of horror.
The man's skin was livid with half-healed scars. Discoloured and distorted with burned tissue. There were a few strands of hair on his puckered scalp which hung down to hide the wreck of his face. Miller gave a choke of revulsion. The injuries were truly appalling. Just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, he saw what was left of the man's hands.
They were bent and warped, two misshapen stumps, which rested on the arms of his wheelchair. The tendons had shortened and contracted into claws. There were no longer any fingers or thumbs.
"Miller." The man's voice was an urgent rasp. "It's good to finally see you. Now tell me – I've been waiting to know. How is Special Agent Eppes?"
Lisa Paris - 2007
NB - Mister Roundhouse, I hear you ask? The meaning of Redondo, in Spanish.