This story is based on the 'Gunsmith Cats' manga by Kenichi Sonoda, with a few elements from the 'Riding Bean' OAV (1989). It is set after the last published manga in English as of March 2005.
Tell me what you thought of it, no matter what you have to say. I'm a big girl. :) I always welcome reader reactions, especially ones that go into detail. Please email me at MmeManga "at" aol dot com (address spelled out because this site strips all email addys and URLS) or leave your comments here.
NOTE: The complete version of this story is housed at my Livejournal, which is linked on my main page on this site. I have removed large sections of chapters Two, Eight and Thirty from the postings here because of the current site rules, although this story existed on the site long before those rules went into effect. I am sorry for any inconvenience to readers; this factor is unfortunately not under my control. The complete version will also be posted at Mediaminer. My former dedicated Gunsmith Cats site no longer exists.
DISCLAIMER: Characters of RALLY VINCENT, BEAN BANDIT, MAY HOPKINS, ROY COLEMAN, KEN TAKI copyright Kenichi Sonoda. All other characters, and story, copyright 2000--2005 by Madame Manga. Contact by email at MmeManga Do not sell or print for sale without the express written permission of the author. Do not archive. Permission is granted to circulate this text in electronic form, free of charge and with this disclaimer and the author's name attached. Do not plagiarize, alter, or appropriate this text in any way. This story is intended for personal entertainment purposes only. No infringement of any copyrights or other rights is intended.
ADULT CONTENT WARNING IN BOLD CAPS!
This story is not for kids or the easily offended. It contains explicit violence and extreme profanity. If you object to reading such things, do not read this story.
Chasing the Dragon
by Madame Manga
Chapter Thirty, Part Two
Rally stirred her coffee. For several minutes she stared out the coffee shop windows at the sunlit street and the blue sky, clinking her spoon against the sides of the cup though the sugar had long since dissolved. She wondered where her Daddy was right now, and what he was doing.
After years of not knowing if he were alive or dead, she'd finally discovered him in the thrall of Goldie. She'd gone to great effort and risked her own and her friends' lives to save him. But he was barely part of her life even now. For no more than a couple of hours on each occasion, she sometimes saw him for a meal or a visit in a hotel room. Once in a while he called her, though he was wary of surveillance and always kept it short.
Rally sighed and took a drink of coffee with the spoon still in the cup.
She couldn't blame Daddy, not really; both the cops and the Mafia were after him. No one could shake a record like his. Even though nearly all of his victims had been gangsters and thugs, even though many of his crimes had been committed under the influence of Goldie's brainwashing, killing was killing. The very least he could expect, if he were arrested instead of assassinated, was a long prison term and probably a jailhouse hit attempt every day before breakfast. He would find no place where he could rest...
Whose fault was that? Her hand tightened on the cup and she removed the spoon. He'd left her of his own free will to do what he believed he had to do; he must have known he could never really come back to her. His chosen path was more important to him than anything else.
But she was his daughter. She had looked for him so long, and this was her meager reward: to know that he was out there somewhere, constantly on the run, always looking over his shoulder. He was alive, but what kind of life was that? How long could he stay alive under these conditions? She loved her Daddy; she wanted to see his face and hear the sound of his voice. Knowing he existed in the world was in some ways only a torment now that he could never be restored to her. All that struggle and heartache for so little...
"There you are! I almost didn't see you way back here. Hee hee! Figured you might still be in bed!" May plopped down on the seat beside Rally with a jaunty, teasing air and punched her in the arm. "Oh you girl! You got all naughty with him again!"
Rally flushed and looked around to see if anyone else in the coffee shop had heard. She'd chosen a corner booth for more reasons than huddling with her coffee and hiding her red-rimmed eyes.
"God, finally. It was meant to be!" May reached up to grab Rally around the neck and gave her a squeeze. "Sure sounded like both of you had a whale of a time!"
"Good grief, I lost count of the orgasms." May jumped up, bounced over to the opposite seat, propped her face on her hands and stuck out her tongue, laughing. The waitress came over with a smile and asked if they wanted the usual. "Oh, I was really wishing Kenny was here! You guys were way more entertaining than anything they had on TV last night, I'll tell you! Oh, how did the blowjob advice work out? Need any more tips?"
"May…" Rally gritted her teeth and indicated their audience. May giggled, but put a finger to her lips until the waitress had left with their orders. Then she leaned in with shoulders waggling.
"Don't worry, you'll lose that embarrassment quick. Then you'll really be able to let go with the screaming—and heck, at home you won't care who hears! He sure wasn't shy, so follow his example and you can't go wrong. You didn't tell me he was such a communicative lover!"
"I guess I didn't."
"Not all men are that noisy, but it's sure fun when they are, because then you know exactly what sets 'em off. Boy, he's got energy to burn! Starting all over again at four in the freakin' morning? Did either of you actually get a wink of sleep? Told ya how it was for him—the earth moved when he was with you! Didn't I?"
"I guess you did."
"I am SO happy for you, Rally." May heaved a romantic sigh and pressed her clasped hands to one cheek. "Congratulations, you got yourself a genuine love machine. You lucky little pussy-cat!"
"Yeah." Rally looked down into her coffee cup. "So you got my duffel bags? We can pack the car and go as soon as you want. I need to check in at the Federal Building on the way and get my rifle out of storage, but that shouldn't take too long."
"What's with you? After a night like that, I'd be walking on air." May tilted her head.
"I just want to get on the road…OK?" Her voice broke.
"Uh-oh...I thought the red eyes were from lack of sleep...?"
Rally covered her eyes with one hand, trying to hold back the tears. "It was wonderful, May. I loved it. I even loved him. I admit it. I felt about him last night like I've never felt about anyone..."
"Of course you love him. I've known that for weeks." May put out a hand and touched her arm. "But...?"
"But we won't be together again. Ever."
"He said…that was all he would ask for. Just once more. At least when he was saying it, that might have been what he thought he was asking. One more time and get it out of our—oh, God." She had to cover her face again. "Did he have any idea this would happen?"
"You tell me."
"Maybe he really thought he could climb out of bed, say goodbye and not look back. He's probably done it with lots of other women and I'd already given him plenty of reasons not to try for more than that. I think he was hoping, sort of beyond hope…that he could treat it like a temporary obsession. He tried to use up all the fuel that's been building up between us so the whole thing would burn itself out. Instead…we s-set each other on fire..."
"Where is he, then? He didn't just LEAVE?"
Their breakfasts came and the waitress refilled Rally's cooling coffee. She cradled the mug, trying to warm her hands. "He left before six. He's heading straight east. He'll be home in less than a week."
"But you said…that he was wrong about being able to say goodbye. How the hell did he do it?" May's mouth opened wide; she looked unreservedly appalled.
"I don't know. You know he's the toughest mother's son either of us has ever met, but I could tell how hard it must have been. I didn't make it any easier for him, but I shouldn't have done that." She looked into her lap, her voice high and trembling, and shook her head. "It was something he had to do. I had to let him go. We both knew that. There wasn't any way to make it b-b-better..."
"Rally—you can't let this go. You just can't. It would be a crime to try to put that fire out. It would be like murder!"
"I…I have to. Don't you see?" Rally started to cry in earnest. "I love him too much to be with him. If this kept happening, if he really were mine, if we were lovers and lived together and everything, I would let it take me over completely, and—he was right, that's all. That's why it has to be the last time."
"Why? I have to admit I am not getting this."
"Because I would lose myself in him. I would lose all my independence and whatever morals I have left. I would start to condone what he does because he was my lover. I m-might even start doing those things myself..."
"Uh...and the problem with that is...?" May threw up her hands with an incredulous air. "Geez, it's not like he's transporting drugs!"
"Oh, May, the drugs weren't even close to the worst of it!"
May blinked. "They weren't?"
"He told me exactly what his work is like now that I've made him stop hauling nose candy. I thought I was so clever. I thought I'd really accomplished something." She wept into her hands.
"Helping him quit the drug trade wasn't an accomplishment? But, Rally—"
"That didn't do any good at all! He's still involved with the filthiest kinds of crooks and killers all the way up to his neck. He never asks questions or takes sides no matter who he's dealing with. That's what's kept him alive so long! It was stupid of me to think he could change even one little thing about the way he operates."
"Oh." May was silent for several moments. "...I guess he thinks he's got it all figured out by now."
"He does! He's got the most definite operating rules of anyone I've ever met...except maybe 426! He knows exactly what he wants to do and how he has to do it. And he imposes his way on everyone. No one escapes…"
"You're comparing him to 426?" May made a startled face. "Rally—"
"Yes, I am! Think about it! The best at what he does, goes through obstacles like a human tornado and just plain overwhelming on all counts! Factor love into that—I'd be swept along with him in no time at all. I would help him live the way he does. I would do his work with him. We might even be happy for a while. But it would eat me alive, May. He knows that as well as I do...and I know my own faults. I learned a little bit about them yesterday." The tears kept falling. "No one would have to use it against us. We'd destroy each other."
May knotted her brows and looked out the window at the street.
Rally bent over the table, a terrible cramp in her stomach and her face wet. "Roy warned me about him…and he was right. I can't ever be his. He's not for me…but oh, God, I wish he were." She choked; tears dripped on her untouched food. "Why did I make love to him all night when I knew I couldn't have him? Why did he let me? What am I going to do?"
"What if he went straight?" May looked back at her.
"Like my Kenny. What if he went straight?"
Rally's eyes went wide and her tear ducts abruptly shut off. For a dizzying moment the whole world seemed to turn upside down, as if Bean had caught her in his arms again and tossed her high into the air. Spinning, soaring, no ground beneath her feet. He'd catch her before she could fall; she had always been able to trust herself to his strength and skill...
"I mean, good golly, Miss Rally! Didn't it ever occur to you that your ethics might rub off on him instead of the other way around?"
Rally shook her head, bringing herself back down to earth. "May, you do realize that the guy I slept with last night was Bean Bandit?"
"Yeah, that's who he is!" May rolled her eyes and gave a laugh. "Guess he wouldn't be real quick to admit it—but now that I think about it, compared to when we first met him, he's pretty far along on the road to reform already."
"Come on, use your noodle!" May tapped the top of her skull. "Like, back when he helped one of his worst enemies break out of prison just for money, it would even have occurred to him to team up with you on a big job? Or actually ask you to go partners?"
"He's had plenty of chances to see how you operate. He knows what your priorities are. Just like you say you know his! I mean, even when he first popped the partnership question it wasn't exactly on the spur of the moment—more like he'd found a good opportunity to bring it up, right?"
"I guess so." Rally looked down and bit her lips. The fried eggs on her plate stared back like filmed yellow eyes.
Premeditation had been perhaps the most threatening aspect of Bean's original offer. He had obviously thought about it for a long time; plans and hopes relating to her had been conspiring in his mind without her knowledge, and she had recoiled as if he had plotted a sneak attack. Because he had tried to be more than a friend, he had seemed like a stranger to her again. Perhaps that was when she started to suspect he wanted her, which would have seemed threatening enough. Maybe she hadn't been wrong about that...
May peered over at her with a hopeful expression. "He's been on the move for a while now, see? And why not? When he's got YOU for inspiration, even Bean is going to see the light!"
"Moving towards what? How exactly do you think HE could go straight? There just happen to be a few minor obstacles in his path—such as ten years' worth of Federal offenses and moving violations!"
"Well, I don't know about the Federal offenses...hey!" May's face lit up. "I know—he could get into stock-car racing. He'd blow them all off the track! Or maybe he could just change over to an above-board courier business—like a specialty armored car service. And of course he'd make a great auto mechanic. You know, run a garage for classic cars, or buy old heaps and fix them up. Those can sell for a lot of money!"
May was right; Bean had many talents to choose from. Rally had told him that herself, hadn't she? Her heart gave a great hopeful thump; the room seemed warmer, the sunlight suddenly brighter.
But it would never happen. Not in a thousand years.
The whole idea was an inflated fantasy, a hopeless dream; the sooner she punctured it the better. For May's benefit, and especially for her own. If she let herself dwell on the impossible, she would only dig a deeper hole into her misery.
"See?" May laughed gaily. "Everything's going to be OK, sweetie. It'll all work out somehow!"
"Oh, for God's sake. The whole reason Bean works on cars is so he can drive them himself. Why would he want to make shiny museum pieces for old rich guys? Or do any line of work other than the one he knows best?"
May put her palms emphatically on the table and leaned forward. "Because he's stone cold, stark staring, madly in love with you, and he knows that's the only way he can have you."
"Hey, he was there too, remember? Making love with you all night? I heard him loud and clear, and I heard you too. It doesn't have to keep happening as far as he's concerned—he's gone." May made a whistling sound and arced a hand in the air. "Over the moon, honey!"
"Yeah?" Rally set her jaw. "So what?"
"You think that makes a cent's worth of difference to him? You think Bean would do ANYTHING just for love?"
"Well…uh…" May blinked in surprise. "Well, my Kenny—"
"We're talking BEAN BANDIT, not Ken! He's no yearning Romeo! God, what an idea." Rally snapped her chin up and glared at May. "Right after I invited him to stay the whole night, you know what he did?"
"Nailed you so hard you squealed?" May rolled her eyes. "No, what?"
"He told me I'd treated him like shit and that it was all my fault he thought I'd stolen the cash seeing as how he couldn't have come to any other conclusion on why I'd jumped a guy I obviously thought was trash, and then he made sure to point out just how stupid it would be for us to get together, financially speaking, because everyone in law enforcement would shun me on his account and of course it's MONEY that makes his world go around, but that I'd only end up getting him killed in any case, so I'd better not screw him again because then he might decide not to let me go after all and take constant sexual advantage of me, and—oh, God, even HE knew he was being horrible, and he kept throwing crap at me anyway just to make me cry—guess he thought it would do me some good!"
She took a great sobbing breath. "May, not two hours ago I stood in front of that man without a stitch on and begged him to kiss me, and he told me to get out of his face."
"He did WHAT?" May looked utterly disbelieving. "Rally, you're not serious. That's a joke!"
She couldn't answer; her face contorted.
"Didn't he say anything to you? I mean, other than by screwing your brains out?"
"Like what?" Rally slapped the tabletop, rattling her silverware. She was well on the way to working up a wounded anger; it was a handy and familiar substitute for grief and loss. "Like he might be kind of stuck on me because he got a woody every time he watched me bend over? The way he put that pretty much took everything out of it that I could possibly have wanted to hear!"
"You don't want to hear that Bean just can't stop thinking about sex where you're concerned?"
"Wow, he likes to ride my snazzy chassis! What makes me any more indispensable to him than one more fancy CAR?"
"But you're right—he's gone. Gone back on the road and clear out of the state! He's a cold-hearted, cold-blooded mercenary, and there's nothing more important to him than staying EXACTLY that way for the rest of his life! Why do I even care? He sure doesn't—he walked out on me of his own free will and he's never coming back! Of all the choices he could have made, he up and left! What else could ever matter but THAT?"
"How about the fact he adores you so much he not only wants to screw you every moment of the day but also tells you that you're way too good for a guy like him?"
Rally blushed from nipples to hairline. "But…"
"But what?" May leaned forward. "What else did you think he meant?"
But she needed excuses again. Facing this straight on, realizing with any degree of clarity how Bean must feel under his cynical façade was too terrible to contemplate.
"But he left me…" she whispered. Her shoulders heaved. "How could he leave me if love meant anything to him? I…I loved him so much…"
"Who are we talking about, Rally?"
"Yeah, of course." May raised a brow and grabbed a little plastic pack of jelly. "This wouldn't have just a little bit to do with another man who ran out of your life?"
Rally's throat tightened. "No. And if you know what's good for you, you'll drop that subject like a pinless grenade."
"Fine." May scraped jelly on her toast, and they fell into an uncomfortable silence.
Yes, Bean had run out on her, just like Daddy had. Neither man had loved her enough even to think of putting her first. Their own codes, their own skills and ways of life were all they could truly value. She'd tried to become like her Daddy so she could be with him. She had remade herself in his image and walked in his footsteps. Maybe he had never thought about the consequences of giving her so much of his attention and teaching her so many of his skills. Finding that his wife considered marriage an endless battle for supremacy, he had turned to his little daughter, who loved him with no reservations at all. Everything he told that trusting girl she eagerly absorbed without question.
Two of a kind, as naturally happy in each other's company as if they were twins instead of parent and child. The same burnt-sugar skin, the same bitter-chocolate hair. They both exulted in the power that firearms lent them, the thrill of a perfect hit and of triumph over an opponent. They depended on the defense against all dangers that a gun represented—a means to shut out or destroy everything that stood in their way. In its flesh and bones their relationship was a stand together against the world.
But she could not live in the shadows the way he must do now. Something essential in her being would wither away without sunlight: a spiritual fate something like her mother's. Growing harder, colder, cutting deeper into everyone around her. An efficient and fearless hunter because the chase and the kill was her highest remaining motive.
Too good for someone like Bean? If she followed him along his path, became the sort of machine he aimed at for himself, she would not be good enough for anyone. And what if she were left entirely to her own devices? Rally shivered. Maybe she had already missed her final chance to redirect her destiny. The shell she was so industriously growing over her soul hadn't quite closed yet. Larry Sam had tried to reach that softer, gentler part of her and give it influence again. Perhaps her slight attraction to him was the faint call within her of what she should have been.
What she should have been? On the verge of her change from girl to woman, the only man she had ever thought she would love had vanished from her life and forgotten she existed. Her growing body, the breasts and hips and maturing beauty she should have rejoiced in, seemed like the agency of her bereavement. The grief and fury she couldn't turn against her absent father, the absolute love she had no object for any more—what had those forces spawned in her as they twisted together in the most hidden parts of her heart? That creature had turned on the only man who dared to draw out the power of her womanhood and show her another destiny. Rally choked, a constriction binding her chest.
Bean had lured a kind of dragon from within her. He'd accepted and cherished her woman's body, he'd shown her the pleasure it was meant to create with his, and because he had been the first to venture into her darkness and put out an exploring hand, she had struck her venom into his veins.
"Rally?" May paused with her mouth open to take a bite of toast. "Rally, you're crying…"
"I know." She covered her face. "It…it took me so long to tell him. And when I did…he didn't even believe me at first, because I'd been so nasty to him. By the time he figured it out…it was too late."
"You told him what?" May's eyes went huge and round. "Oh, Rally! In so many words?"
"I thought he was going to tear my head off. He tried every tactic he could think of to prove to himself I was just toying with him, or deluded…and then he said he didn't care if I thought I had to tell fairy tales to myself and boiled it all down to whether or not I'd screw him, and to what must have been his total shock, I told him yes."
The color drained from May's cheeks. "You told him? You actually told him you l-l-loved him? And he claimed it was just an annoyance unless he got some ass, and you still took him up on it?"
"Holy shit." She let her toast fall on her plate and clapped a hand over her mouth. "I already knew that guy was a thirty-minute egg. But I guess I had NO freaking idea!"
"No, you didn't."
"Then...then what you said about standing in front of him this morning...?"
"No joke. Cold as ice!"
May's lips trembled. "Oh, my God…"
"Until sometime last night Bean believed that the only person who might really get hurt by his making love with me was him. So he got in bed with me because he figured he was tough enough to handle a little bit of total heartbreak if he had a memory like that to treasure. Once more in his life before he died..." Rally put her face on the table and covered her head with her hands. "And I thought love could conquer all and if I could just prove it to him everything would be OK. I was sure he loved me, and that's why I said yes. But nothing's OK. He can't go straight. I can't go crooked. We should never have touched each other. I'm the one who came on to him, and he just couldn't say no…"
May vehemently shook her head. "You came on to him because you knew how much he wanted you! Bean's blaming himself, not you. He thinks he should have known better because he's the more experienced one, so it's all up to him to make this right."
"Up to him?"
"You bet—a guy like that cleans up his own messes."
Rally swallowed hard. "I know."
"So that's what he's done for love! He's tried to keep you safe."
What else had he been doing all along? Bean's car crashed and burned; hers landed on all four wheels…
"You did the impossible last night—you proved you loved him. And here he'd been getting his cooties all over you and making the infection worse. I bet he said whatever he thought might help cure you of your disease...and it didn't work."
"It wasn't his fault this happened! It was mine..."
"But it was his fault, if it was anyone's fault. Just as much as it was yours." May leaned over to touch Rally's hair. "Because he made the same mistake you did. He believed you were the kind of woman...who would never truly care about a man like him."
She could almost see Bean lying alone in her bed after she'd flounced off to the bathroom to take a shower. Smelling her scent on his naked skin, the gradually cooling imprint of her body still outlined on the spread beside him. Probably the enormity of it had hit him like a knife in the throat. Their accidental collision had multiplied its hidden damages a thousand times over.
What had he thought, what had he done? Maybe he'd tried to get his clothes on and leave before realizing it was a lost cause. Staying for a few more hours couldn't make the situation worse, because it was already as bad as it could get. Maybe he'd sat motionless for a while, staring at the bed where he had finally given and received everything he had longed for. Where for a short time he had let his dreams rule him instead of his fate.
Just tonight, baby. Call me sweetheart? A little?
At least a quarter of an hour had passed before Bean had joined her in the shower, and what he had gone through during those minutes might have been even worse than what she had inflicted on him this morning. Because he'd been trying to cut his heart out with his own knives. He was in love with a woman who loved him too, and that was the entire reason he had to leave her.
He might have been cursing the very name of love. Silent tears ran down her face. The way she was doing right now...
"Ral? Please talk to me." May took her hand again. "You look awful..."
Rally closed her eyes. "He...Bean said...that nothing was going to hurt me with him around. He promised me he wouldn't go anywhere." A huge, heartbroken sob. "He promised me..."
"Honey, Bean thinks what could hurt you the most now...is him." May started to cry as well. "He was trying his best to make you believe he was that cold-hearted mercenary who didn't want you. B-but I saw those horrible scars on his throat, and what was left of Buff, and..." She choked. "He'd give everything he has for you. He'd rather die than let you come to harm."
"I want to die." Rally looked up, her streaming eyes wide open. "I'll die without him. How could he think leaving me wouldn't kill me?"
"He's hurting too, Rally." May got up and sat down beside Rally. She put her arms around her and held her close. "He's feeling exactly the same way."
Rally buried her face in May's chest, sobbing. May patted her hair, taking quivering breaths.
She had wanted to heal Bean's wounds. She had longed to make up for all the ways she had injured him and pay back the great debts she owed him. She had believed the gifts she offered would return him to health. But she had failed. The wounds penetrated past his heart; they cut into his soul. Because now he knew exactly what the treasures were that he could never enjoy: not just her body, but her love.
All her accounts were empty. She had spent all her capital, exhausted every option. What was left?
"What should I do?" It was a cry from her depths, echoing in what seemed like an infinite emptiness. "Oh, God, what should I do?"
May kissed the top of Rally's head. "Maybe we'd better go pack the car."
"Pack the...?" Rally blinked and snuffled.
"Yes, pack the car and get the hell out of here! You'll feel better once you've hit the ignition, so let's swing by the Federal Building as soon as we can. You like talking to Agent Smith and he's Mr. No Nonsense anyway—he'll cheer you up or he'll know the reason why! Maybe you could use their firing range again, huh? You might not get another chance to shoot your nice new gun for days!"
"Maybe I could..."
"Yeah! Waste some ammo and smell the gunpowder! That's always the best medicine for Rally Vincent no matter what ails her. As long as she's got bullets in her gun and gas in her tank, she can take on the world!"
Rally smiled through her tears. "I love you, May..."
"Well, you know what? I love you too."
Rally stopped in the corridor on the way to Smith's office as Larry Sam appeared around a corner. May bumped into her from behind and let out a squeak of surprise. Rally pasted a smile of greeting on her face. "Uh...hello, Larry. What brings you to the Federal Building?"
Larry stopped short as well. He seemed startled too; for a moment she saw panic in his eyes.
"Hello, Rally—I, uh, I was just heading out. Hello, May..." He didn't look at her, but glanced back over his shoulder with an air of apprehension.
He wore the same dark suit as he had at the banquet, but his hair had been trimmed in a more conservative cut. He seemed somehow older and more solid, already taking on the air of an FBI agent. Someone else rounded the corner a moment afterwards: Sue Wojohowicz.
Rally gulped. "Uh, hi, Sue." How was she feeling about the way they had behaved at the party? This was the first time she had seen Wojohowicz since that night. "How are you?"
"Rally? Oh, uh, just fine, thanks." Wojohowicz gave her a bright, awkward smile. "Eventually the hangover wore off."
"Oh, heh…I guess we all might have drunk a little too much, huh?" They grinned sheepishly at each other. "I, uh, we were just here to see Pete..."
Larry and Wojohowicz looked at each other. Maybe they'd meant to clear out before she arrived, believing they had a few minutes' margin of safety, and hadn't allowed for light traffic and Rally's aggressive city driving.
"Yes, I know," said Wojohowicz. "He's expecting you." They stood aside to let her pass.
"Excuse me," said Larry, nodded at May and headed off. Wojohowicz lingered for a moment, but turned to follow him.
"Sue? Is...everything all right? Something come up?"
The agent actually blushed. "You could put it that way…"
Wojohowicz seemed to shrug something off, like the last sour twinge of a humiliating memory. Maybe she was thinking of an unwise crush on an underground courier with a nice set of shoulders. "We've just been debriefing. Mr. Sam and I have, that is."
"Debriefing? Did Pete want to know something...?"
"Yes, he did." The corner of her mouth quirked; she regained a fraction of her usual air of amused tolerance. "Well, he'll fill you in. Goodbye, Rally. You too, May. Have a nice trip." She left them in the corridor looking sideways at each other.
"What the hell was that all about?" May narrowed her eyes.
"Search me." Rally made a face. They knew something. About Bean? How?
"Weird." May's mouth dropped open. "Oh, my gosh! You think Agent Smith asked them something about—?"
"What else? I think someone said once that Sergeant Smith had the sensitivity of a rhinoceros." No wonder those two had looked so strange, if he'd been grilling them about the state of her relationship with Bean! "For God's sake, May, don't say a word to him about what's happened!"
"Promise me! That's one subject I just don't want to get into with him right now. One smart remark, and—" She hugged herself and peeked around the corner. "He's coming out! Promise me!"
"A-all right...I promise."
"Hey there, girls." Smith emerged from his office and gestured to them. He was in shirtsleeves, not usual for him, and he seemed restless. Even his grizzled buzzcut somehow managed to look rumpled. "Come and take a chair. Miss May, Miss Rally—glad you could find the time to come and see us. Won't keep you long."
"Good morning, Pete." She gave him a smile. "Did you want me to file that report before I go?"
"Report?" He looked blank for a moment. "Oh—right. Your little problem at the seaside. Yeah, I had something typed up for you to look over if you'd like to check the details. Sure, let's get that covered now." He ushered them in and picked a document from his in-box. "There you go."
"What's this?" May looked inquiring.
"Oh, gosh, I never had a chance to tell you about the assassination attempt!" Rally laughed a little, scanned the incident report and gave May a quick account of how she and Bean had handled Brown's hitmen.
"He was just brilliant—getting the guy to ask for the car keys rather than offer them to him, see? So he wouldn't be suspicious right off the bat! God, I could have kissed—" She stopped short and clenched her jaw to keep her lips from trembling. May looked at her with concern.
Smith cleared his throat and grunted a laugh. "Yeah, pretty clever. Well, they're fish food. Forget them." He laughed again, more heartily this time. "When you've got a guy like Bandit watching your back, you've got no worries." Rally glanced at him with a sense of something under that comment, but all she saw was bluff good humor.
May looked slightly green at the mention of fish and stuck out her tongue. Rally grabbed a pen, hastily signed the report, which made no mention of Bean, and handed it back to Smith.
"That was nicely done, Pete. Makes me look like Wonder Woman, though!"
"Hey, why not?" He grinned and tossed it into his out-box. "Nothing unbelievable about that."
"Oh, come on." She waved a hand at him. "So, is the firing range free? Where's my rifle?"
"We'll get to that, Miss Rally." He smiled tightly. "There's something I need to mention to you first."
Something about his expression disturbed her, but she couldn't see any way to evade this, so she sat down. Might as well get it over with and get on the road!
"This have anything to do with me or not?" May looked at Smith, obviously on alert.
"As a matter of fact it does, Miss May, so please have a seat. How's that baby doing?"
"Great!" May put a hand on her belly. "I'm pretty sure I can feel him moving around sometimes. Usually in the middle of the night, of course!"
"Good, good. Can I get you some water or anything?"
"Sure, thanks." May leaned towards Rally when Smith stepped out to the water cooler, apparently meaning to make a comment out of his hearing, but he returned almost at once.
"There you go." He handed May a cup, sat down behind his desk and leaned back. "Girls, I need your help. Especially yours, Miss Rally. I hope I'm in a position to ask a favor or two?"
"Well, sure you are!" Rally smiled at him—this didn't sound so bad. "I'd do just about anything in my power, Pete."
"All right, that's good to know."
"Hey, I owe you. You have no idea how glad I am that I met you...and that we eventually got along."
Smith grimaced, but spoke with a touch of gallantry. "Well, thank you, ma'am. I'll say the same to you."
"So what is it you need us to help with?" May sounded much less enthusiastic than Rally.
Smith took a deep breath and tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair. "I wish I'd had more opportunity to study those documents of Brown's before they, ah, vanished. Some valuable information in that folder regarding Bean Bandit."
May's gaze slid to Rally and back to Smith. Rally took a quick startled breath.
"Process of elimination, girls. We've been looking everywhere for it, assuming it had been misplaced." He leaned forward, something tautening the skin around his eyes. "At least, I truly hoped it had only been misplaced. But I had incontrovertible proof of its ultimate disposition handed to me only this morning. I admit I was actively avoiding that conclusion until now, because it was Bob Wesson who first suspected you two, and I wasn't very willing to listen to his opinion."
"Uh-oh." May turned bright pink.
Rally's eyes went wide. Smith knew they had taken the black folder, and something in his manner told her that he wasn't going to write off its loss after all. Rather the opposite.
"Incontrovertible proof? What do you mean?"
"That's what I said. I guess you didn't realize we were watching your hotel. A little off your game, are you, Miss Rally?" Smith's smile had an edge of slightly unpleasant sarcasm.
"Watching me?" A cold, dizzy wave went through her; she rose halfway and sat down again, clutching the arms of her chair. "How the hell long have you been watching me?"
"Watching the hotel, I said." He gave a bland shrug. "There were at least two agents in the lobby 24/7, and a lot more on call in case of suspicious activity. As long as you were in San Francisco, we considered you our responsibility, so the FBI was on the lookout for known Dragon auxiliaries and anyone we could associate with Brown's gang. You were recovering from a hospitalization, so we didn't bother your pretty head with the details."
"Sorry, Rally." May looked sheepish. "These nice clean-cut guys at the concierge desk were always helping me with my bags when I got back from shopping. I thought they worked for the hotel!"
Yeah, she'd been pretty preoccupied not to spot round-the-clock FBI surveillance! Chagrin and anger in equal measures seethed in her breast. "Oh, and this was for my protection, huh?"
"Yes, it was. I imagine that's why your hapless contract killers didn't make a move until you and Bean were well out of the city and away from observation. They spotted us and backed off to wait for a better opportunity."
Rally covered her mouth, the penny finally dropping. "You know where Bean spent last night."
Smith's face twitched. "Of course I do. Even if I hadn't been briefed, you did tell me he was with you yesterday. I think I could have figured out on my own where that was going to lead."
"Oh." A deep flush mantled her cheeks. "So that's your incontrovertible proof?"
"The agents on duty observed Bean coming into the hotel with you, and they observed him leaving early this morning. He had a hefty set of documents in a black cover. Was that why you lifted it in the first place?"
"You gave the folder to Bean?" May turned to her with a startled look. "Just handed it to him?"
"Yes, I did." Rally closed her eyes for a moment, her heart sinking.
"A generous whim, huh? You've probably gathered that I had some plans for that folder. Not just the raw information in it, but its value...in possible negotiations." Smith's eyes narrowed. "I think you said you owed me, kid."
Rally met his steely gaze and swallowed hard. It wasn't at all comfortable to be on the other end of Smith's displeasure; she'd almost forgotten how intimidating that square drill-sergeant face could look. "You were going to offer Bean the folder? In exchange for something?"
"More or less. After we'd plumbed it to the depths, naturally. I don't know if that would have been the ideal angle." Smith tapped a fist on the edge of the desk. "But you've left a damn big hole in my plans to persuade Bean to talk to me."
"Talk to you?" May blinked. "You talked to him for hours! I thought you two were shooting the breeze about cars!"
"When did you shoot the breeze with—oh. At the Sam party?" Rally stiffened. "That's why you made Larry invite Bean inside!"
"Partly, yes. I wasn't going to lose an opportunity like that. Didn't think we were going to get another chance."
"You weren't going to get another chance?" Rally went red and shot to her feet. "That's exactly what Sue said to him!"
Smith leaned back to meet her glare with a level gaze. "Sure, she might have been quoting me. We've been discussing the objective in-house for a while. We'd hoped he would show a lot sooner, and I'll admit we were getting nervous. The banquet seemed like pretty good bait, but it wasn't a sure thing by any means."
"Oh, really? So you told her to come on to Bean?"
Her face hot, Rally rapidly skimmed through her memories of the dancing and drinking. Apparently more had been going on during that phase of the party than she had realized—and it was no wonder she hadn't noticed anything, considering how drunk she had been herself. Her powers of observation had certainly gone to hell over the last couple of weeks, and there was only one person she could blame for that!
May's gaze switched back and forth between her and Smith, her expression disturbed and her lips tight.
Smith rolled his eyes. "Didn't even have to mention the possibility. Agent Wojohowicz took it upon herself to apply a little, uh, creative thinking to the situation. Which was fine by me—I figured she'd come through for more than one reason. Which is about what she confirmed to me this morning."
"Holy shit! You knew she had a crush on him?"
"I had my suspicions. Didn't bother me any, and it worked to my advantage. If it hadn't been for her, Bean might have left pretty soon after he got there."
"Because of me, you mean."
Smith's face twitched again. "You have to admit you didn't go out of your way to treat him like a fellow guest of honor."
"Not after he'd scared me and Larry half to death!"
"You don't seem to have held that as a serious grudge against him, Miss Vincent. To put it mildly." His eyes flicked up and down her figure. "Like I said, I needed to talk to him, and as long as it hooked him, I was willing to try anything."
"Including letting Bean get Sue so upset she—" Rally sat back down in mid-gesture and shut her lips. Her anger at Smith was rapidly getting out of hand; she should be much more careful, considering her situation, but it wasn't easy to restrain herself when she felt so disoriented. Everything seemed different now, every word and gesture, as if a tidy, sequential stack of incidents and images had been shuffled into unrecognizable chaos.
"She works for the Bureau. A little stress and strain comes with the job. What's your problem, girl? I wasn't about to suggest that you offer him anything." Smith leaned back and showed his teeth in a nasty smile. "Though I guess kicking his shins and calling him names must turn him on."
"You...you..." She spluttered with rage and embarrassment. Her good friend Pete? This seemed like the Smith she'd first met, the caustic old-school agent who seemed to specialize in needling her.
"Calm the fuck down, girl." He waved a hand at her. "I'm only getting my own back. Those documents weren't your property to dispose of. They're mine—that is to say, they're the property of the United States government and the Department of Justice."
"Fine, we're thieves. I'm such a bad girl!" May held out her wrists with a kittenish squeak and wriggle. "Going to put the cuffs on now, Agent? Ooh, this could be kind of exciting!"
Smith looked very much taken aback, and shot a glance at his closed door. He abruptly got up and retrieved his jacket from a hook. Rally burst out laughing, almost more in relief than amusement. The tension in the room collapsed.
"Jesus. Don't talk so loud! Somebody might get the wrong—" He shrugged the jacket on and sat back down, muttering to himself. A few drops of sweat shone on his forehead.
"Ooh, really? I didn't know this sort of thing went on in the Federal Building all the time!"
Smith gave May a ruffled glance. Rally kept giggling; he looked back at her. "Getting to my point, Miss Rally?"
"Of course, getting to your point." She sobered up somewhat, though she couldn't help grinning at his obvious discomfiture. Thank God for May!
"Christ, kid, I was going to let Bean have that folder eventually in any case." Smith threw up his hands. "Once I'd made all the use of it I could, it would have been my privilege to wrap it up in ribbons. But you can't give it back to me now, so my options have considerably narrowed."
"Sorry." Rally didn't feel a great deal of sympathy at the moment, but realized that Wesson would never have contemplated letting the folder out of his possession. She could give Smith that much credit.
"I'm not interested in throwing you girls in jail, for crying out loud. I'm a practical man, and I'll use what I can get. Right now, that's you. What you got to offer me in exchange for a valuable piece of government property?" He leaned back in his chair and shoved his hands in his pockets.
Rally compressed her lips. "You want us to help you get something out of Bean? What did you want him to talk to you about, anyway?"
"Not vehicular trivia, that's for sure." He snorted. "That's how I started out at the party, though. I figured I'd try warming him up and then move on to the more important stuff. He was happy to talk shop with me, but the moving on part didn't work worth shit. That man's a brick wall when he wants to be."
"Brown put it about like that." She looked down and picked at her fingernails.
"Yep, and if even Sly Brown couldn't talk about delicate matters with Bean, I guess I didn't have a snowball's chance. Not that I go for Sly's style of conversation." He rubbed his upper lip. "I tried to be straightforward, but I also tried to pick my moment. So I broached the subject once I'd buttered him up for a while. He'd had a few drinks and gotten relaxed, I thought. He did me the honor of hearing me out, but that was it." Smith sighed and his face sagged into lines of frustration; he looked tired and much older. "I could tell he didn't consider it for a fraction of a second."
"You still haven't told me what you want from him."
Smith frowned at his desk and moved a few papers. "You might recall that the FBI's very sketchy initial information on Bean made note of the fact that he would be an invaluable resource for clearing a lot of Federal cases. Simply put, that's exactly what I want. Not official testimony, of course. Just some facts and figures pertinent to the most important of those cases."
"You understand the significance of this?" He raised his chin and gave her an intense and focused look. "For fifteen years I've done everything in my power to fight against organized crime, and I've made a little headway, I think. The work's slow and the results are too. The bad guys always seem to be miles ahead of us, and I'll admit the FBI doesn't always make the best use of the resources it has. This guy? He could bust rackets all across the country."
"Bean." Smith made a sweeping gesture; his voice rose. "We're talking about a source who could be a one-man powerhouse RICO sting." He suddenly leaned forward and pointed straight at her. "Miss Rally, you got involved in Bean's business and ran a lot of risks to help take out one lousy Triad. You want to see mobs going down like a field of corn in front of a fucking combine harvester? Get Bean Bandit to talk to me!" He pounded a fist on his desk.
Rally's mouth opened and closed, her head whirling. "I guess he has the goods on a lot of organizations...but he won't give it to you. His rules—"
"Professional honor and all that. I know." He made a dismissive gesture. "That's about what he told me. He won't betray his clients with the information he gets from working for them."
"Yes, that's right. Unless they've betrayed him first, of course..."
"I respect professional rules, and I respect the fact that he's a man of his word." Smith nodded. "I'd never try to tear that down—that's a huge part of what that guy is about, and just one of the reasons I like him. But I don't know how to reach him, given those obstacles."
"Unless you had a really incredible incentive to offer him..." She flushed. "Like that folder."
"Uh-huh. His mind matches his muscles." Smith tapped his right temple. "Steel trap, and no mistake. He'd see through any subterfuge I cared to try if I cared to try it. But even if I could, I won't resort to trickery."
Rally laughed shortly. "Tricking Bean is as much as your life is worth. That was one of the biggest reasons he hated Brown so much."
"Exactly. I wouldn't want to get on that side of him for a million bucks. Nor do I want to make threats. I want a direct approach. Quid pro quo. I'll pay for his services in any coin he prefers."
"That's...how he operates."
"I've already told him what I'm after, face to face. So I think you realize I'm not planning a sneak attack. Would you tell him that?"
"Let's not beat around the bush. I've lost my best angle on Bean. You swiped it off Bob Wesson's desk and made him a present of it." Smith took a deep breath and flushed slightly under his stern expression. "But, Miss Rally, I imagine you have an angle that couldn't be surpassed."
Rally's insides turned over. "I...I..."
She began to hyperventilate. He had no idea Bean had left her with no intention of coming back. He thought they were acknowledged lovers. Happy, fulfilled, celebrating their new life together. All the pain and anger she had felt at abandonment rushed back in a storm of emotion, though it threatened to aim in another direction entirely. Her teeth clenched, her face went hot and cold.
"What you looking at me like that for, girl?" Smith laughed derisively. "You let the big mongrel into your room last night, didn't you? So obviously he's learned how to roll over and beg!"
"How...how DARE you?"
"Oh, my God," muttered May.
Smith sat back and raised his hands. "All I'm asking you to do is lead him a little farther along the primrose path. He's well on his way anyhow, right? With your rosy lips at his ear, he'll be willing to listen to reason. You encourage that along as much as you can, and I'd lay good money I'll have myself an informant inside of a month."
Rally slowly rose, her throat tight and her voice strangled. "The last time I heard someone propose that I use Bean's weakness for me against him, I was talking to Sylvester Brown."
Smith's expression darkened. "Now you hold on just a minute—"
"You son of a bitch. I can't believe I'm hearing this—you know how he feels about me and you want me to make it into a weapon? Destroy everything important about him and force him to betray people who trusted him? I'll never do that!"
"Who the hell's asking you to destroy anything?"
"You are! You're asking me to take away his honor and his independence and everything that gives him strength! You want me to drain the lifeblood out of him until he has to lean on me just to stand up! I love him, you got that? I love him! Just the way he's always been! Bean Bandit, the Roadbuster. The baddest driver in Chicago!" She had gone over the top now and couldn't stop the flood. May pulled on the back of her jacket, but Rally didn't sit down.
Smith sneered slightly. "Oh, so you love him."
"Yes, I do! You ever love someone you shouldn't love, Agent Smith? Someone who was totally out of your reach and who you knew you could never have but you still couldn't help loving that person no matter what you did? You ever been in love at all, you son of a bitch?"
His lips peeled back from his teeth. "As a matter of fact, I have."
"Rally..." said May in a low, warning voice and yanked harder at her jacket. Rally jerked away and slammed her palms on Smith's desk.
"Oh, yeah? Then how the hell can you tell me to use a man I love for your purposes? How can you tell me to sacrifice him to the DOJ to put another gold star on your record?" She jabbed a finger at the plaques and certificates hanging on Smith's office wall. "It's not like the government's ever done anything for him—except raise him long enough to run away and live on the streets at twelve years old! You've got no idea what he's suffered!"
Smith abruptly shoved his chair back, got up and stalked towards the door. "Maybe more than you have, girl."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
May looked shocked, her hands pressed to her cheeks. "Rally...watch it...!"
"No, I won't! I'm tired of denying it! I'm tired of telling myself and everyone else that Bean's no good because of who he is! It doesn't matter any more—it never mattered at all. I don't love him in spite of his being the Roadbuster! I love him BECAUSE of it!"
Smith turned and directed a stare at her that under almost any other circumstances would have made her shake. "Because he's a criminal? You want him to drive on the wrong side of the street for the rest of his life? However short that turns out to be?"
"Yes! The rest of his life! Longer than that. Forever! Anyone, anything, anywhere, anytime! I don't want Bean to let all the air out of his tires for me. I don't want him to settle down and turn into some goddamn USED-CAR SALESMAN!"
"Rally!" May's mouth dropped open. "You don't WANT...? B-but you love him! He loves YOU!"
"And you know what? If he ever told me that, if he changed his course by one degree because of me, he wouldn't be the Bean Bandit I know any more. I think the sky would fall on my head if that happened. Nothing would ever be the same again!"
"No, I guess it wouldn't." Smith banged the door open and went out.
"Oh, God, Rally...how COULD you?" Angry tears glittered in May's eyes. She shoved her chair backwards and followed Smith, leaving Rally alone in the office. She stared at the open door and the empty hallway, her mind gone a little numb after so intense a blaze of feeling.
"What?" she said again, to no one.
Rally stared at the array of weapons spread out on the table in the basement firing range of the Federal Building. Pistols, rifles, her Sig SSG-551, another HK-11 like the one that she had lost in the pier. That rifle had saved her life and Larry's. She looked at it for some moments and patted the stock, but picked up another military assault rifle, a battered AK-47 with its distinctive banana clip engaged.
"What's this old thing? It looks like something from the Vietnam War!"
"Oh, that belongs to Agent Smith." A young agent finished unloading the cart full of ordnance he had brought down from the armory. "He asked me to put it here with the stuff he checked out for you. Said he wanted to get off a few rounds with you for old time's sake."
"Oh." Rally put the AK-47 down. "Um, I think I'll start with my own guns. If that's all right."
"Sure." The young agent shrugged. "He said to let you shoot anything you wanted to, so all this is staying here until you're finished with it. The ammo and belts are all here on the cart. Anything else I can get you?"
"No...I'm good. Thanks." The young agent left, and Rally was alone in the firing range. She hung up her jacket, put on ballistic goggles and ear protectors and sent out a target. After rapidly emptying her CZ75's magazines at twenty-five yards, she loaded them again.
"May...dammit..." Rounds clicked in one by one as Rally muttered to herself, still seething despite the bracing smell of cordite in her nostrils. "I thought you were on MY side! What's the matter with you?" She laid the CZ75 down and picked up her rifle. Firing from the hip with her feet braced and her teeth gritted, she blasted away at the target until the center was one gaping hole. The rifle's triple magazines held enough ammunition to blow away legions of imaginary foes, but Rally's firing rate gradually trailed off, her trigger pulls coming slower and slower until she finally stopped and lowered the weapon. Her face working, she stared unseeing at the back wall of the firing range.
It was true; she didn't want Bean to go straight if that would make the slightest difference to who he was. She couldn't let him open any chink in his defenses; that would surely tear him apart. Wasn't he unalterable and seamless, every part of him necessary to the whole? Break the smallest imperative of his natural profession, like a gear slipping its motion, and the whole machine would unbalance, batter itself to pieces, grind to a permanent halt. That was exactly what he had told her this morning.
She could not bear to think of him like that: ruined, diminished. Not just because she loved him. Her love had nothing to do with Bean's essential self. He had lived and worked on his own long before she had come along, and he would keep going on his lonely way without her.
"No," she said aloud. "I'll never ask you to change. I won't long for the impossible. I'd even let you off that promise you made me, just to know that you're still out there somewhere, doing what you do best: tearing up the highway, pushing your cars to the limit, never stopped, never arrested, always five steps ahead of pursuit..."
Rally raised her face, her eyes alight and focused on imaginary distances. Wind seemed to stir in her hair.
"I want to see you blast past me in a supercharged Mustang or that L-88 Corvette with your hair standing on end and your hands locked to the wheel, rock solid at a hundred and fifty miles per hour. It doesn't matter where you're going, because I only want to know that you will never slow down. I want you to run as fast as a red-lined engine, as powerful as a juiced dragster. I want you to exist forever exactly the way you are: a perfect machine for driving.
"And I want you as dangerous as the elements. I want you as unpredictable and uncaring as the ocean. I want you not to give a damn. To think only of your rep and your cars and your cash! I want you to be what you were meant to be, no ball and chain to hold you down. Always put pride and money a thousand miles ahead of love! That's what Bean Bandit would do!"
She spread her arms wide and tears ran down her face. "I love you. I will love you for the rest of my life. But don't turn around, Bean. Don't look back at me, because then I might hope our dreams could come true. Just cut our hearts out and abandon them in the dust. It's better that way. If I did have hope...if I thought that there was the smallest chance we could be together and then it didn't come true after all, I think it would kill me instead.
"We lost control last night. We've gone through the guardrail and over the cliff. We've driven into the fire together. But you still have a chance to save your own life, if you'll only leave me behind. This time I'm going to keep you safe instead of the other way around. I'll defend you to the death, Bean. I won't let you die with me."
She snapped the rifle to her shoulder and began to fire again, but her shots wandered far off target, her vision blurring with her tears.
"Agent Smith?" May poked her head around the door of the break room.
Smith finished filling his coffee cup and dumped in a packet of Sweet 'n' Low. "Yeah."
"Can I talk to you? I'm sorry Rally called you a, uh—I thought maybe you had more to say that didn't get said. Because of that."
"Sit down, Miss May." He pulled out a chair for her.
"So are you really mad at us for swiping that folder right out from under your nose?" May sat and made big Bambi eyes at Smith, who stared back. "I'm weally, weally thorry…" She stuck out her lower lip and sniffled theatrically while pretending to wipe away tears.
He gave a short, half-amused chuckle. "I'm kind of impressed that you accomplished it in the first place. But yeah, I'm just a mite ticked off. Not least because I'm on record as swearing up and down that you girls couldn't possibly be the culprits." Smith took a quick swig of coffee and made a face.
"Um... since you can't use the folder now, what were you going to offer Bean in exchange for his information?"
Smith shook his head, his expression grim. "Sounds like I'm back to the drawing board on that one too. Allow me to get you something, Miss May?" He nodded at a rack full of tea bags and packets of instant cocoa.
"Yes, thank you—some of that spice tea would be nice." She stayed where she was, swinging her feet and watching Smith make the tea for her. He methodically opened the packet, poured hot water over the bag, put the cup in front of her along with two napkins, two sugars and a coffee stirrer and sat down again with an air faintly less on edge.
"Thank you." May jiggled the bag up and down in the cup with the coffee stirrer and tipped in half a packet of sugar.
"My pleasure." Smith drank his coffee in silence.
"I really would like to hear what you were thinking about doing, even if you don't think it's going to work." May looked up while blowing on her hot tea. "I know you weren't talking about blackmailing Rally or forcing her to—whatever."
"I hoped I'd made that clear...but I guess I didn't." Smith rose with a resigned grunt and got a refill from the almost-empty pot bubbling away on the burner. "Christ, this crap is thick as melted asphalt."
"You said something about the wrong side of the street. Did you mean...that you want to see Bean go straight?"
"What does it matter what I want? If she's stuck on that idea of him, nothing I can say will make any difference."
He half-smiled. "Pete, OK? If you don't mind addressin' me as a friend."
"Gosh, of course!" May smiled back, then grew serious again. "Look, Pete...Rally's pretty upset. She swore me to secrecy, so I can't tell you the details. Maybe she'll get around to it when she calms down."
"Yeah, yeah." He sighed and turned his steaming cup in his hands. "So tell me what you can tell me."
May bit her lips. "It's not you she's angry with, OK? Don't take it personally."
"And how would you suggest I do that, Miss May?" Smith gave her an edged smile.
"Sorry. I guess I'm not feeling so calm and collected myself."
"Because she insulted you?"
"If you like." Smith shrugged and leaned against the counter next to the coffeemaker. "So who's she pissed at if it's not me?"
"Well...she's been pretty badly hurt..."
"Hurt?" Smith frowned and abruptly put his cup down, sloshing coffee on the countertop. "Has that son of a bitch—?"
"No—not like th-that." May's face crumpled and her voice quavered. "Don't think that Bean did something wrong. That's not why Rally's feeling so bad. He...he tried to fix things in the only way he could. It's not his fault it didn't—but I'm not supposed to be saying anything."
Smith's brows creased in puzzlement, but he nodded. "All right, he's off the hook. Go on."
"This is going to be awfully hard to explain in a way that makes sense."
"Give it a try."
"Oh, gosh." May put her face in her hands and her head on the table. "I think it's self-defense. She's building walls like crazy. One gets knocked down and another goes up. I don't think she can help it. It's like this reflex where she goes in circles..."
"You're right." Smith folded his arms. "That doesn't make sense."
"She made you promise not to tell me the details? Why?"
"Because she was afraid you'd be all sarcastic and make cracks about it." May gave Smith a rueful look.
"She can't take a joke, so she went off on me." He rolled his eyes. "Fine. If you can't tell me what's eating her, I'll take my best guess. Give me a wink if I'm getting warm."
May nodded, and Smith creased his brows and stuck his hands in his pockets. "Just one direct question, OK? She telling the truth about this? That she doesn't want Bandit to go straight?"
"...I don't know. I thought that was exactly what she would want."
"That's one girl who takes justice seriously. Why would she believe that breaking the law is what makes a man a man? She's been listening to some damn stupid—" Smith stopped short. "Hey. That wasn't her idea—it's his."
"Warm," said May. "Boiling hot."
He shot a look at her. "Bean told her that, did he? That you can't turn around once you've picked your road? Can't escape your karma? That fucking coward."
Smith kicked a vending machine with a sudden crash and May jumped. "Most guys with half a set of balls would do anything in the world for a lady like her, and he can't even swear off driving faster than the speed limit? Fucking pussy son of a bitch!"
May blinked at him. "Uh...geez...I see you feel strongly about this…"
"No shit, sister." Smith sat down forcibly and took a few hard breaths. "I'd like to bang a little education through that thick skull!" He shook a fist. "If I had him right here—well, I'm not twenty-nine any more."
"What would you tell him, Pete?"
"If Bean was in this room? And if he was listening to me for some unfathomable reason?"
"Imagine he was." May creased her brows and carefully examined Smith's expression.
His face worked and twitched. "It ain't all about you, you big bastard." Smith aimed a finger upwards, as if addressing someone a head taller than himself. "It's about you and her, yeah, but it's about the rest of the world too. You can't stand apart your whole life—sure, you've made a pretty good job of it until now, but it always comes down to something like this in the end. You're a human being just like the rest of us bums! You OWE something to the whole damn species, and a man pays his debts!"
Smith stopped, breathing hard, and seemed to make an effort to control himself. After a moment he went on in a low, harsh voice.
"No matter how tough you think you are, you're not a machine. Frankly, you're a fucking cream puff. You're an infant. You've had it all your own way until now. This is where the going gets rough. This is the real test, pansy-ass." He slammed his fists on the table and bore down; the legs creaked. "So don't make the biggest mistake any man can make! Don't waste your courage in the wrong cause! The only cause that matters is living like a human being. Fuck your rules. Fuck your honor! If it cuts you off from the only thing that redeems the whole blasted world from darkness, it's bullshit from beginning to end!"
"Love?" said May.
Smith glanced her way, his cheeks flushed and his teeth on edge. "What the hell else?"
"Uh…wow, I guess I wouldn't have thought you'd put it quite that way..."
"Christ, I know he's crazy about her. I got that the first time I met him—while he was cracking me over the head with my own carbine, that is." Smith rubbed his temple. "I didn't have to see him get killed to figure out why he was working so hard on her behalf."
"Get killed? Don't you mean almost killed? I heard it was something to do with this weird poison 426 used on his throwing stars...?"
Smith slowly shook his head. "I've seen dead men, Miss May. I know the difference between life and death. That man was as dead as they come."
May looked at him, silent.
"I am not a religious man. I never have been in awe of anything that I thought was greater than myself, other than the United States of America and its founding documents. Then I saw a man come back from the other side of death for the sake of a woman he loved. At that moment, I was a religious man, or I guess I believed in the same thing Bean believed in." He closed his eyes for a moment and faintly grinned. "Now that was a feeling."
"Oh, my God." May's lips formed the words without making a sound.
"So tell me. How can a guy who throws his life away for a woman be such a pussy?" Smith growled and crushed his empty coffee cup.
May swallowed hard. "He does put Rally before everything else. He can't stop himself."
Smith looked away for a moment. "Well, that's a start."
"To him that's a bad thing! All the wonderful things he's done for her seem like he's giving in to a weakness instead of being incredibly brave. He can't even see himself as a hero. He's lost his biggest battle, and he knows it."
"We all lose some."
"I don't think he's too used to it." May sighed. "Maybe you're right—it does scare him. B-but Rally's scared too... "
"She's scared of what? That Bean will cut his own balls off if he breaks one rule?" Smith narrowed his eyes. "I think we're back where we started."
"Maybe…when the whole world's falling out from under you, you hold on to what's familiar just to save your life. If you can count on something—someone—to stay exactly the way he is, even if that isn't the way you'd like him to be, at least you know where you stand."
Smith rolled his eyes. "Fucking pathetic. They spent the night together, she's finally saying out loud that she loves him, and you'd think she was on the worst day of her life! I'm sadly disappointed in that little lady."
"W…w…warm," stuttered May.
"It's…it's…oh, heck, I wish I could say why! B-but I bet that's just what she would say—the worst day of her life."
"And I picked today to come down real hard on her…for reasons I won't mention either." He rubbed his forehead. "Well, shit. Maybe I deserve everything she called me."
May reached towards him, her fingertips just brushing the sleeve of his coat. "I know she'll be sorry soon! You're her friend—she didn't mean it."
Smith looked at May, his face pale. "Oh, she meant it, all right. She was defending the man she loves."
"Bean was desperate to make her believe that nothing about him would ever change." May leaned closer. "But I think you want something really important to change, something that could make a difference to her whole life. And to Bean's."
Smith shut his eyes for a moment. "Yes."
"Like I said...I'm listening."
"I'm talking about offering the man a blanket immunity deal from the FBI."
"A...what?" May's eyes went huge; she put a hand to her mouth. "Oh, gosh...that would be WONDERFUL!"
"At least someone appreciates my beneficence." Smith cracked a tart smile.
"Of course I do! Wow! What does the FBI have on Bean, anyway? Some kind of dossier?"
"After he's been in business ten years? You bet your ass we do." He chuckled faintly. "The moment he showed up on the Brown operation we knew who we were dealing with. We could pin some major crap on him that he'd find pretty hard to shake, even though making it stick in court might prove a little iffy. But that's not what I want to do, and even when I wanted to detain him for questioning, that wasn't what I had in mind. The man's got far more value as a source."
"So what would this deal cover?"
"I want to wipe out every potential Federal rap on his docket. That won't be so hard to arrange when reasonable doubt is in short supply. All he has to do is show us some effort and a little halfway-decent dope. The sticky problem is his home town. I've been on the horn to some colleagues in the Illinois field offices, and I've heard stories that would curl your hair." He shook his head.
"You mean everything he's done in Chicago?" May's face fell. "Roy said Bean's been in the top ten most wanted for a long time in the Chicago PD. They're mad as hell at him."
"No reason they shouldn't be. The number of squad cars he's smashed up must have set some kind of record." Smith laughed with genuine amusement. "But you know what? Far as I can deduce from talking to Detective Coleman, half the department secretly admires the man. They know he doesn't cross a certain line—he's not the worst of the worst by a long chalk. Cops understand a guy who knows his way around the streets and his way around an automobile. If Bean were to show them he'd turned things around, such as by making some conspicuous gestures, maybe they'd change their minds about him. Could take a while, I admit, and it's not a sure bet by any means. He's got some dyed-in-the-wool enemies. But I've heard other stories, you see, and of course I've seen plenty of the best stuff with my own eyes." Smith patted a hand over his heart. "A man who could do some of the things he's done..."
May beamed at him. "I could tell you a lot more of those good stories, Pete, and so could Rally!"
"I bet you could. Behind that brick wall there's a heart of gold...so to speak." He smiled. "He doesn't have to muster a change of attitude to turn his life around. It's already there. He's just got to be willing to show that to the world."
"Turn his life around? So this deal isn't just because you want something to offer him in exchange for information?"
Smith made a noncommittal shrug.
"You said you like Bean. You want him to be able to, um, live a better life? Able to offer something to...Rally?"
"What about to pay him back for what he did for my agent and for young Mr. Sam? I haven't forgotten how he rescued you and Brown's daughter either. The man is a hero. Maybe in time he'll believe that." Something struggled with his smile, shaping it oddly. "Yeah, he deserves that lady. Down to the last drop of blood in his body. Literally."
"You want to help them be with each other? So they can be happy?" May touched his arm. "Pete...that's the most wonderful thing I've ever heard."
Smith laid his hand over hers. "It's only fitting. You don't ignore something like what happened at that hospital. It's got meaning. What exact meaning might be up for debate, but not the meat of it. He gets another chance, or my name's not Pete Smith." He sniffed hard through his nose. "Yeah, well. Least...the very least I could do. If she lets me do it, that is."
"Oh, I'm sure she will!" Delight and a shade of tender sorrow mixed in May's face. "We'll talk to her, and I know she'll come through when she gets a chance to think. You're a good man, Pete. The best."
"That's mighty sweet of you to say, but I know when I'm being buttered up." He patted her hand and leaned back.
"You think so?" She dipped her head and looked up at him through her lashes. "You deserve a lot too. I'm sorry...that you didn't end up with that woman. The one you said you'd loved."
Smith shrugged. "Little late for that. Thirty years back...well, I guess I never would have let her get away." He ran a hand over his grizzled hair. "1969 was a long time ago."
"Aw...I bet you would have swept her off her feet."
"I'd've given it my best shot, that's for sure. Heck, I'd've roared right up in my screaming yellow Hemi 'Cuda and taken her for the ride of her life." His eyes crinkled; his accent gained a hint of Georgia drawl. "I may be a wide-assed old fart, but way back then, I might have been able to give even Bean Bandit a run for his money."
May gave him a huge, shaky grin, her eyes sparkling with tears. "Yeah..."
"Aw, Miss May. Don't you cry." Smith's accent slid all the way South. "We all get old and gray. Or we do if we're lucky enough to live that long. There, there." Smiling, he looked into the distance. "No use for weepin'."
"I was just hoping...that she didn't hurt you too much. That woman you loved." May's voice went high; she swallowed a lump and went on. "Because I'm pretty sure she doesn't—I mean, I guess she never knew. You never told her, did you?"
"Why the hell would I have done that?" He snorted gently. "Not like it was her fault."
"She was a lovely lady inside and out. Tough and tender at the same time. She couldn't always decide which way to be, but that was part of her charm. You wanted to stand back and let her do things her way, and you also wanted to stand right beside her and give her all the help she needed for as long as she needed it. She was filled with passion from head to toe. Passion for her profession, for the good of the world, and for the people she loved."
"She must have been a very special person."
"No mistake about that. You couldn't help but feel something extraordinary when you were around her. Maybe her temper could be a little quick and maybe sometimes she'd refuse to look straight at things right in front of her nose. She wasn't a plaster angel by any means. But when a beautiful young lady looks at you with that clean zeal for life and justice shining in her eyes, it would get any man's attention. Any man at all." He smiled down at his thick workman's hands. "Still, it's not like she was looking to cook ol' Pete Smith's goose."
"I..." May sniffled and wiped her eyes with the tip of one finger. "I guess not..."
"No, you're right. She never knew it, and as far as I'm concerned she never will." He gave his head a slow, emphatic shake. "She wouldn't have had to do anything but exist, Miss May. She's just that kind of girl. But that's water long gone under the bridge." He got up and ran a light touch over May's blonde hair. "I bet Miss Rally's blowing off a little steam downstairs. Should we go see if she's ready to talk turkey?"
"Yeah." She smiled up at him. "I think it's about time we did."
"Not enough noise in here." Smith opened the door for May, who was cupping her hands around her ears. "I thought you'd be firing up a storm, Miss Rally."
"I was." She let her rifle stock rest on the floor beside her foot and pushed back her goggles and ear protectors. "Pete...um..."
He held up a hand. "Miss May, you want to take the lead, or shall I?"
"That depends." May looked at Rally with a whiff of cool reproof. "I hope you were about to apologize to him."
"Well, I guess that depends too." Rally stared out at the fragments of her target and folded her arms.
"He's got a proposal. Please listen to it—you are going to want to know this!"
"A proposal for turning Bean Bandit into a government informer?" She turned to look at Smith. "I don't know if May told you, but Bean's not in town any more. He left for Chicago this morning."
"I figured that, since he headed out so early." Smith shrugged. "So you're meeting him when you get home?"
Rally stared at May. "You didn't tell him what happened?"
Smith's eyes narrowed. "I haven't heard anything but a few hints. Miss May said this was your business."
"Yes, it is." Her lips trembled; she covered her mouth. Tell Smith all about her grief and heartbreak? Reveal what had happened this morning after he'd needled her the way he had? "You go first. Tell me what this deal is about."
"It's pretty simple, kid. Bean gives me some info, I arrange for his record to be erased. Everything that anyone's got on him goes under an immunity deal. I can cover the Federal end. Miss May told me something on the way down here that just might boost his chances with the Cook County police. So tell Bean from me that if he can see his way clear to do what I've asked him, I'll be able to help him on his way in turn. I'm happy to do what I can."
"Help him on his way where?" Rally stared at Smith. "What are you asking me to do?"
Smith's frown relaxed. "Miss Rally, I'm not demanding that you make mercenary use of something...that I realize has to be pretty damn profound if a guy with the Roadbuster's history could make any headway with you at all."
His voice went quiet, even a little softer in quality, and he laid one hand flat on the table next to the old AK-47. "Maybe you don't believe he'll ever stick strictly to the straight and narrow, but I figure you give him plenty of credit for what he could be someday. He never would have had a chance otherwise, right? And everything he's already done to help us out encourages me. Obviously you lit a fire under him in that respect, because he's made a damn good job of it over the last few weeks."
Rally felt sick, but May's eyes looked bright.
"Wasn't I just mentioning that this morning?" She came over and squeezed Rally's arm. "Ral, you hearing this? Bean could get a pass from the FBI!"
"If...if I talk to him about it?" Rally held her churning stomach, suddenly realizing how hungry she was. "Ask him to break his most ironclad rules for a government pardon?"
"If he'll come around, Miss Rally, I think we can frame our questions in such a way that we won't need him to disclose anything he truly believes is off limits. Everything can be off the books if he prefers—it doesn't matter how he wants it done." Smith turned his palms up, almost with a pleading air. "I just want you to act as liaison. Grease the skids as much as you think you can. I know he doesn't cotton to pressure, even from a lady as lovely as you. But I'm retiring soon, and if this doesn't go through before the end of the year, I can't promise the offer's going to be renewed by my successor. I had to jaw the SAC into backing me on this, and it wasn't a cakewalk even taking Bean's valor into account. It's a delicate thing. I don't like to say now or never...but that's about the size of it, I'm afraid."
May's eyes moved from Smith to Rally and back again.
Rally said nothing, her head spinning. This was starting to sound...possible. An arrangement Bean might actually accept, however unbelievable that had seemed. Her breathing accelerated and her heart began to pound.
Smith seemed to search for words and went on in an almost tentative manner. "Look, I don't know exactly what terms you two finally arrived at, and it's not any of my business. I have no idea why he didn't come around more often after the rescue operation. I was a little surprised he didn't just walk in the front door of the hospital instead of hanging out in the parking lot all night, but obviously that's personal territory and I won't ask any questions. I do want you to know that the agents guarding you had specific instructions to let him in to see you wherever you were and not allow the SFPD to bother him while he was in your vicinity. The last thing they were there to do was keep him out."
"Miss Rally, I swear it wasn't just because I thought it would be useful to the FBI if Bean wasn't prevented from talking to you." He flushed red. "I hope you can believe that. I thought it was going to happen a lot sooner than it did, but..." Smith looked deeply awkward and rubbed a hand over his face. "I guess something's well between you now, and I'm glad. This is one guy who's going to be rooting for both of you."
Rally bent over, now completely dizzy, and put her hand on her forehead. "Oh...God..." May rubbed her back and made soothing noises.
"What the hell's the matter with her?" Smith stood up straight and peered at her. "She gonna upchuck on my firing range?"
May put her cheek to the back of Rally's head and hugged her. "She didn't really have any breakfast, I guess...or a whole lot of sleep last night."
"Christ." He sighed. "Then let's go up to the cafeteria. Or I'll take you out to the Starbucks across the plaza—the coffee's at least drinkable there."
"No...God, no..." Rally's legs gave way and she slid to the rubber-matted floor.
"Hey! You all right?" Smith started and came closer; May cradled Rally's head against her round belly.
"Oh, God—why didn't you tell me about this sooner? Why didn't I know about it last night?"
"It just got put together, that's why. Before six this morning, I was still planning on locating that folder somehow. I didn't think I had to get quite this creative—Miss Rally, what's wrong?" Smith knelt beside her. "You still think he won't go for it?"
"Pete…he walked out on me. He said he wouldn't take me with him. I thought he'd never accept a hand up. Both of us were sure we could never be together..."
"Huh?" Smith glanced up at May. "What's she talking about?"
"I think she means...that if Bean had realized there was a way to turn his life around and stay with her, he might have done it." May put a hand over her mouth. "But he didn't know. And now he's gone."
"Yeah, gone back to Chicago. Where both of you live and work! What the hell? You'll see him in a week!"
"I might not see him for a year! Or even longer."
"The last thing Bean wants to do now is accidentally run into me. It would be awful for both of us. Or...or it would have been, and he's got no idea that could ever change!"
"Awful for you? You said you love the guy!" The blood left Smith's cheeks. "Oh, shit."
Rally gave a great sobbing gulp. "Yes, I love him. He loves me, I think...I know. So we tore each other's hearts out this morning. If it had only been sex, if we'd just been amusing ourselves, it wouldn't have mattered. But he wanted to protect me from the consequences of being the Roadbuster's lover. He didn't want me to ruin my life for his sake. So I guess he's ruined his instead..."
Smith was silent, his face frozen.
"Bean will take every out-of-state job he can. He's going to make himself as scarce as possible. He might even decide to quit operations and not hang around in Chicago at all…"
"How could he do that?" protested May. "He's got to work! If clients can get in touch with him, then you—"
"May, he just got more than twelve million dollars free and clear! If he's careful, he won't have to work for years."
"Oh, no..." whispered May.
"Exactly. If he can possibly manage it, he'll never meet me face to face again."
"That bad, huh?" said Smith.
Rally lowered her head; a tear released itself from her brimming eyes and ran down her cheek. "I…I think I probably gave him the idea…and he won't change his mind. I'm afraid...that there's no hope for us. No hope at all..."
Smith said nothing for a little while, still kneeling on the floor. May stood next to Rally, stroking her hair. Rally cried and clung to May, her face against May's stomach.
Under her cheek, she felt something stir: a tiny fluid wriggle. A little being floating in his watery cushion, steadily changing and growing in the dark warmth. Waiting to come forth and start his life when the time was right. He couldn't be hurried, but he also couldn't be delayed.
He would emerge when he was ready. Then he would open his eyes and ears, which until the moment of birth would have sensed no more than a faint hint of the world outside the walls of his snug shelter. What would he think of the sun?
"OK, who's hungry? I think I worked off my breakfast a couple of hours ago." Smith smacked his thighs and got up with a grunt and a hand on the table for assistance, then checked his watch. "Holy shit, it's almost ten. Where's the morning gone?"
"You're a bounty hunter, girl—you forgetting that? If anyone can track him down, you can." Smith ate ham and biscuits in the booth of a diner down the street from the Federal Building while Rally slowly worked on a chicken sandwich. May sipped a smoothie and swung her feet. "You'll find that man double-quick—he sticks out a mile anyway. Heck, you might even catch up to him on the road!"
"I doubt that. But thanks for the professional endorsement." Rally gave a faint smile.
"No worries there. He'd have to take some pretty elaborate measures to stay that well hidden." Smith shook his head and crammed his mouth with a butter-soaked biscuit. He ate almost as fast as Bean did, though in somewhat lesser quantity.
Rally thought of her father's underground life and gave an even fainter smile. "I guess so."
"Say, I think I have a message for you." Smith washed down his mouthful with coffee and stuck his cup out for a refill when the waitress came by with the pot. "Thanks, doll."
"Oh? Who from?"
"Well, that's a question. I got this message given to me a while ago, but I never delivered it. So I figure I'd better give it back to you." He sweetened his coffee, rolled the little blue paper packet between finger and thumb and flicked it across the table.
Smith cleared his throat. "As I recall, it went something like this: 'Tell him I said there's always hope. Of one kind or another.'" He put a fork in his last slice of ham.
Rally's mouth dropped open.
"He turned up not too long after you said that to me, Miss Rally, as I'm sure you remember. Young Mr. Sam said you told him Bean always seemed to be around wherever you were, and that you didn't think that was going to change." He glanced up. "Anything different now?"
Her lips trembled. "Yes, things are different...but...maybe you're right. At least...about the hope."
"I'm not taking credit, girl. Your own words, and wise ones at that."
"Feeling any better now, Ral?" May squeezed her arm. "I think your blood sugar must have been pretty low. Hey, finish your milk!"
Nourishment had improved her outlook a little; at least she no longer felt shaky and weak. Rally nodded and dutifully ate more chicken sandwich. "Yes, Mom."
"You keep me posted on that baby, you hear?" Smith nodded at May. "I want an account of every burp and nap."
"You want to stand godfather, Pete?" May giggled and slurped through her straw.
"Why the hell not? I might have to split the duties with Detective Coleman, I guess. Sounds like he's not a complete tightass, even if he is such a good Catholic boy."
"Not a tightass?"
"I told Pete about the parking lot and the box of fried chicken." May raised her brows. "Did Roy see Bean before he left? He was talking a little funny the whole afternoon at the mall."
"Yes, he did—and yes, he told Bean about being the cop who found him." Rally took a deep breath. "Roy said Bean should look him up when he got home…"
"I thought it must have been something like that." May beamed. "See, that might work out really well! For the deal, I mean. If Roy were willing to handle some things in Chicago and talk to people…"
"…then it could go through pretty fast and Bean would be safe from arrest and free to start over in some other—" Rally put her sandwich down. "I…I'm talking like this could really happen."
"Yeah, because it could! Imagine it, Rally—you could be together! You wouldn't have to hide anything, you wouldn't have to worry about Bean's work, you'd be able to—"
"To watch our backs 24/7 because of gangs with old grudges against him? Maybe some new grudges when they start getting mowed down by the FBI and put two and two together?"
"And this is different from your life now in what respect?" May rolled her eyes.
"Well…OK." Despite herself, Rally smiled. "Uh…this is taking some getting used to..."
Smith looked at her with an almost compassionate expression, swept a biscuit around his plate to sop up the last drops of gravy and stuffed it into his face. "There, there," he said with a full mouth. His cell phone rang; he picked it up from the table. "Smith...sorry, gimme a sec." He took a swig of coffee, put a credit card on the table and moved towards the door of the diner. "'Scuse me, girls. Got to take this one." He cupped a hand over one ear. "Yeah? So what time yesterday was this?"
Rally looked over at May. "I'm sorry. I've been putting everyone through the wringer today just because I was feeling..."
"It's OK, I forgive you. So does Pete."
"It's Pete now?"
"Uh-huh. Gosh, Rally, you never told me what a teddy bear he really is. Such a sweet guy!" May beamed.
"Sweet?" Rally almost laughed. Sarcastic, crude, prejudiced Pete Smith? "That's going a little farther than I would. But you're right—he might have started out by dismissing me, but he ended up backing me with all his heart. Kind of shocking at the time!"
"Was it?" May looked at her through her lashes.
"Yes, it was. I thought he'd reverted to form today, and thank goodness he hadn't. But you know...he does seem just a little funny." She shook her head and finished her milk. "Want to hit the ladies' room?"
"I am feeling better, kind of." Rally blew her nose and examined herself in the mirror over the bathroom sink. Swollen eyes and dark circles to go with plenty of other signs of strain and grief. "But God, I look like shit." She opened her purse and refreshed her makeup.
"You're beautiful. Amazingly gorgeous. Honey, every time you turn around someone else succumbs." With a half-smile, May opened a stall door.
"Nothing. Just buttering you up." She winked and shut the door.
"Whatever you say." Rally shook her head and applied lipstick.
They joined Smith outside and walked back down to the Federal Building, dodging some anti-government picketers at the main entrance. They returned to the firing range where Rally had left her weapons; she cleaned her CZ75 and holstered it.
Smith drew his ten-millimeter from his shoulder holster, putting it on the table next to the battered AK-47. "Before you pack the rifle away, let me shoot a few rounds with you." He picked up the AK-47.
"Sure—I'd be honored. That one's yours?"
"Yep." He grinned, brandishing the rifle as if posing for a picture. "Genuine battlefield booty from the 'Nam, taken off a dead gook—uh, Vietcong soldier. Brings back memories."
Combat fatigues and dog tags must have suited him very well. "You liked the Army, huh?"
"Like is not the word." He shook his head. "The Army made me what I am, I'll give you that much. I'm grateful I got through my tour alive and relatively intact." A shadow passed over his face and he put the rifle down. "I guess I won't be seeing you gals again unless one of us happens to drift by the other's home town."
"I guess so. Unless you plan to retire to Chicago!"
"With those Midwest winters freezing my bones? I'm a Southern boy." Smith rolled his eyes and busied himself with filling the AK-47's magazine. "Try Fort Lauderdale instead. I've got my eye on a condo by the beach."
"Hey, we could take a vacation in Florida next time!" May laughed.
"Next time? You mean us with Ken and Junior." Rally looked over at May.
"Well...yeah, I guess so." May's smile wilted just a little. "But that would be fun too."
Smith bent and took a battered ammo box from the cart. "Gosh, what could be in this little ol' package here?" He put the box on the table with a thump, unlatched the lid and displayed a neat stack of assorted US Army grenades. "Well, I'll be hornswoggled. Who could make good use of these, do you think?" He winked at May.
May squealed and jumped up and down. "Are those for ME? Oooh! Oooh!"
"Happy explosions, kid." He smiled and gestured to May. "All above board. I've put these down as reimbursement in kind for supplies consumed during a government operation. We haven't forgotten how you helped take care of 426, and we're grateful."
"Aw, it was my pleasure! Thank you so much!" May hugged the ammo box and gave it a kiss. "Ooh, this is heavy..." She put it down and festooned the carrying hooks and loops inside her jacket with flash grenades and frag bombs, giggling.
"Ooh! White phosphorus! Those are sooo cute!"
"Pete, you're a generous man." Rally laughed.
"Yeah, well, least I could do. Comes out of my budget." He picked up a rifle bag from the table and unzipped it. Out of it he lifted a bolt-action hunting piece, a vintage Winchester Model 70.
"Wow—that's a pre-'64, isn't it? Nice rifle!"
Smith hefted it with an air of pleasure. "It's a pre-war, Miss Rally. Made in 1940. It was my pappy's, and my grandpappy's before that. They bagged a lot of venison with this and even a few bear—not always in season, mind you. Here, take a look."
He held it out to Rally on his palms. She took it with admiration; this was a well-made old gun that had been taken care of during its long life. It wasn't decorated or customized and it showed signs of hard use, but there wasn't a speck of rust on the worn blued metal and the stock gleamed with the patina of years. She worked the bolt, then turned and sighted at the target through the scope; the rifle felt balanced despite its length, and she felt sure it was supremely accurate. With a slow squeeze to the trigger, she took a dry shot and felt the oiled parts click together in perfect harmony.
"That's a beautiful family heirloom." She lowered the rifle and offered it back to him. "You must be proud to own it."
"And I'm proud to pass it on, Miss Rally." He gestured to her. "I hope you'll accept it."
"I've got no kids, and my kin are all city folks or trailer trash who would let it rust in a closet. I want someone to appreciate that piece, and I can't think of anyone I've ever known who'll appreciate it more than you."
He put a hand on hers where it clasped the rifle stock and closed her fingers over it. "Please."
This princely gift couldn't be refused; she saw something in Smith's eyes that gave her a lump in the throat. "Oh, Pete—thank you. I..."
"I got a whole box of ought-six right here. Try it out."
"I'd love to. Thank you. This is so sweet of you!" She gave him a big smile, and then shifted the rifle to one hand and hugged him with the other arm. He straightened up, patted her shoulder and moved away.
May watched them, her expression oddly sober.
"Thanks for taking it. I know it'll be in the best of hands." He looked down at his feet, thrust his hands in his pockets and scuffed a shoe. "Anyway, I figured you'd prefer this to something like flowers and jewelry."
"Jewelry? You bet! Oh, gosh—that reminds me." Rally put the rifle on the table, reached for her purse and took out the sapphire earrings. "I wanted to turn these in to you." She unwrapped the tissue and held them out.
Smith leaned over to look at them. "What? Why?"
"Hey!" May put her arms akimbo and glowered at Rally. "What are you doing?"
"I'm delivering some of Brown's stray property to the FBI. What does it look like I'm doing?" She thrust the earrings at Smith. "Take them, please. They were bought with—"
"No way, sister." Smith put up a hand and stepped back. "Those are yours. Even if there was some question about that, I know who gave them to you and I'm not at all interested in pissing him off."
"Larry Sam took me aside during the party after Bean got there. He showed me those sapphires wrapped in a dirty bandanna and wanted to know what he should do. I told him what they were and that he should do just what Bean told him to do—give 'em to you." He shook his head. "I'm a little surprised at you, Miss Rally. Why wouldn't you take a nice present from your guy when he went to such trouble to pass them on to you?"
"You want me to sign something with a Federal logo on it? Keep them." He waved her away with a laugh. "Jesus, I have to say that more than once? What kind of girl are you?"
"Well…I sort of hoped, an honest one…" Rally looked down. The sapphires winked at her like a pair of sparkling blue eyes; the small diamonds that framed them were points of white fire in the cool fluorescent lighting.
"As honest as the day is long, Miss Rally. Let it rest."
"See?" said May. "They're yours!"
"Um...gosh." Rally touched one of the settings with an odd feeling in the pit of her stomach. "Mine?"
"You really didn't think of them that way, huh?" May grinned and looked at Smith. "See, she likes jewelry after all!"
"Well, sure I like them." She smiled tentatively at the sapphires. She owned them. They were really hers...and Bean had given them to her. Suddenly they looked ten times more beautiful than she had ever let herself realize. "I never said I didn't."
"You know, um, I hear those look like they were meant to adorn you and no one else." Smith gave an odd sheepish grin. "I was wondering if I'd ever get to see you wear them."
"That's a hint, Rally." May giggled. "I want to see too!"
"Oh, good grief!" Rally closed her hand on the earrings to squelch the temptation. "Did Roy tell you that?"
"As a matter of fact, he did. And we found we could agree on a couple of points after all. Such as, that you deserve the prettiest things any man could buy for you." He flushed slightly and rolled his eyes.
"Uh...really?" Rally's eyes darted to May, who was looking a little strange again.
"Really what? That you're a beautiful girl, or that an FBI agent and a city cop could agree about anything?" Smith folded his arms with a faint grin. "I think a lot of men could come to the same conclusion. Not to mention one underground courier whose good taste usually gets exercised only in the area of vehicular transportation. Apparently he saw you wearing 'em too."
May pursed her lips in a silent whistle.
"Midnight-blue Corvette," murmured Rally with a sigh. She clipped on each earring in turn and brushed her hair back, then turned her head from side to side and laughed self-deprecatingly. "OK, I've put them on. Am I dazzling?"
"Gosh, those are pretty!" May came closer to examine them and put a hand on Rally's shoulder. "They do match your eyes—that's just amazing."
She expected Smith to chuckle or perhaps make some comment on women's vanity, but he was silent. When she looked at him, she was startled to see nothing but open admiration. He slowly shook his head as if words were insufficient.
"Gosh, Pete, they're just rocks!" Feeling very self-conscious, Rally took the earrings off and tucked them into her purse again. "I'm going to have to get a box for these, I guess."
"I wasn't really looking at the...ahem." Smith cleared his throat and turned to the weapons again. "Well, I got my old Commie boom stick, and you got that Winchester. Want to make a little noise with 'em?"
"Thought you'd never ask."
May put her hands over her ears and watched while Smith and Rally tore up targets. The sharp crack of the AK-47 and the heavy reports of the rifle mingled and bounced off the walls. When the last shell casing had hit the floor, Rally turned to Smith.
"Hmm?" He popped his magazine and laid his weapon down.
"Why do you want to do that for Bean? Give him immunity?"
"I told you. I need his help."
"No, this is above and beyond that. Way beyond. There's something else going on." She turned to face him. "Pete, be honest with me. Does this have anything to do with...personal reasons?"
Smith went red and shot a look at May, who made a tiny shake of her head and looked a little panicky. "What do you mean, Miss Rally?"
Rally stared at them. Did this have anything to do with that odd mood he had been sitting on? Or what May seemed to keep hinting at? Did they have some kind of conspiracy going on between them?
"I mean that no matter how good you think Bean's information might be, complete immunity from prosecution—and working with a city detective to help that come about—is not something the FBI does every day. Like, never." She took a deep breath. "Pete, I was starting to wonder—"
"Yes, there are personal reasons. As a matter of fact." Smith looked embarrassed and May seemed very surprised. "Some of 'em are pretty near and dear to my heart."
"Pete?" Rally's eyes went wide.
He looked over her head and his expression relaxed. "If you don't mind, I'll tell you a little story. By way of explanation."
"Way back when, in a little place in the Georgia backwoods...there was a kid who liked fast cars." He smiled; May puffed out a breath and leaned against the wall. "That kid, he didn't have much education, he didn't talk too good, but he figured he could get somewhere anyhow if he could just drive there fast enough."
He spoke now in an easy drawl, his voice going slow, with a richer timbre. "So he learned himself everythin' he could about workin' under the hood an' behind the wheel. An' when he got to be a little older, he realized he'd got damn good at both, better'n most folks. So he got himself a job in a garage makin' hot rods. But that didn't pay so well even if he liked the work. 'Long about 1965 he fixed up a Mustang he'd bought wrecked, put in a 427 he'd heated up as much as he knew how, an' he started makin' deliveries on the side."
"Yep, deliveries. Stuff that needed to get there fast an' no questions asked." Smith brought his gaze down to her, sly mischief dancing in his eyes.
"W-wait a minute...you didn't haul illegal cargoes and outrun the cops in that fast Mustang of yours!" Rally's jaw dropped open at his expression. "Pete?"
"Moonshine an' Mary Jane, to be exact. Not fer all thet long, Ah'll admit. Ah got out of the rackets an' quit smokin' reefer 'fore Ah got arrested or did anythin' too untoward." He scratched the back of his head with an air of amused guilt; May's eyes bulged out and she clapped a hand over her mouth.
"You quit...before it was too late."
"Mostly 'cause Ah got mah ass drafted into the 'Nam and didn't have no choice in the matter, but Ah might've done it anyhow. Ah was a shit-kickin' cracker, sho' nuf, but Ah wasn't dumb."
He met her gaze with keen steel-blue eyes; she caught a glimpse of something she had often seen under the well-worn lines of his face. She owed a lot to that independent will, that touch of wildness still burning in him even after serving so many years under discipline. This wasn't a man who had ever let anyone else make his most important rules for him.
"You were just like him..." No wonder he and Bean had always seemed like two of a kind. She had a vivid picture of a stocky, muscular young man with a brown crewcut and a pack of cigarettes rolled in the sleeve of his T-shirt. Leaning on the hood of that hot-rod Mustang. "Oh, Pete. I guess...I should have known."
"Uh-huh. I want to give that guy a hand up, because a long time ago someone gave me a hand up and told me to pass it along. Otherwise I wouldn't be talking to you now." He laughed. "If anyone deserves a break from a guy like me, it's Bean Bandit. Now there's another story I want to tell you, one I just heard."
"You recollect the Sam banquet? That donation box they had for the victims and families?"
"Sure I do. Roy put in a big check."
"Did he? Well, good for him." Smith chuckled. "Though I'm afraid that would have been just a drop in the bucket."
"It was five grand!" said May with indignation. "That's not peanuts!"
He shook his head. "That call I got at the diner was about the victims' fund. The organizers pulled in about fifty grand at the party and figured they were in for a long slog. They were hoping for maybe half a million over a year's time. Enough to hand out ten or twenty grand for each death or disability, which might pay for a couple of months of rehab or living expenses. But they got a big windfall today." He spoke casually, but with an undertone that told Rally he was fishing for something. "An order of magnitude more than their goal. Plus."
"Wow—some soft-hearted billionaire came through? That's great!" Rally pumped her fists in the air. "Or was it a grant from a foundation?"
"No, it was an anonymous donor." Smith folded his arms and kept a level stare into her eyes. "He called 'em up yesterday for info and followed through this morning."
"Anonymous?" She blinked in some confusion and appealed to May. "What, you think I can tell you who it was? I don't know any local fat cats—"
"Who do you think it was?" May narrowed her eyes.
"You tell me. This person wanted to know a lot of specifics on their spending plan and their tax status. A savvy customer with financials, apparently. A couple of volunteers spent about an hour on the phone getting him the details. He said something about a partnership, and he told them he'd probably be wiring them some dough...when he confirmed it with the other partner." Smith put a hand on the table and leaned forward. "Yeah, they assumed they were talking to someone from a dot-com or a foundation. They thought maybe this organization would come through with ten or twenty grand. You know what was in their account when they turned on their computers at nine A.M. this morning?"
"You sure you don't have any inside information, Miss Rally? Now's the time to tell me."
"Oh, my gosh," said May. "Rally—a partnership?"
"Huh? What does that have to do with—oh, MAN!" She yelped and clapped her hands to her cheeks, which suddenly burned like fire. "Would the amount happen to have been…something over six million bucks?"
"Six million, two hundred and twenty-three thousand, one hundred and five United States dollars. To be exact." Smith smacked the table. "Why didn't you say anything to me, girl?"
"Because I didn't know!" Rally threw out her arms in a helpless gesture. "I just did a little simple arithmetic. Half and half!"
"That's how I proposed to split the suitcase full of cash, right when it all started. Half for Bean, half for me. And I told him I wasn't going to keep drug money for myself." Her mind whirled; her eyes felt dazzled and her knees shook. "My share was going to go to help the fight. So that's...exactly where...he sent it."
She groped for a chair and sat down.
May jumped up and down. "Six million dollars? Bean sent them SIX MILLION? Oh, Rally—he's a PRINCE!"
"Y-yeah...that's pretty darn generous of him..." A glorious symphonic roar filled Rally's head. "But of course...it was according to the rules."
Rally held a hand to her pounding heart. What had Bean been doing this morning? He hadn't fallen to pieces. He'd scrupulously observed their original agreement, and he'd given away more money than he would probably earn in another ten years.
For her: and for the people whose suffering he'd seen and shared just as she had. Just because he didn't wear his compassion on his sleeve didn't mean he couldn't feel it in his heart. She would never underestimate him again. Bean had given her a gift more perfect than any she had ever received, no matter how beautiful or well meant. It didn't matter why or how. It only mattered that he was himself.
"I love you," she whispered to the air. "Oh, God, I love you."
"So Bean didn't tell you? Miss Rally—"
"He didn't have to tell me." She looked up at Smith with a radiant smile. "I told him what I'd do with that money if I had it. The terms were all agreed on a long time ago. He never goes back on a handshake."
"That's pretty damn far to go—six million? I thought this guy liked money. Most people would like that kind of money way too well to let it go so easy."
"Most people would, but not Bean. He squares his accounts. To the last penny." Rally closed her eyes and hugged herself. She wanted so much to hold Bean in her arms right now that for a moment she almost felt his embrace. The warmth of his spirit surrounded her. "Money is money. It washes itself clean..." May came over and hugged her too; she was laughing through her tears.
"Steal from the mob and give to the poor, huh?" Smith shook his head, but he was smiling too. "After drawing off a fifty percent finder's fee, that is. I wonder if he's already found himself a new vocation."
"I think I could see my way clear to backing him up on that one. Speaking of finder's fees..."
"No, I didn't forget that either. Your name's down for a percentage of the stuff we got from the boat. We're talking government procedures, so it could be a while before you see any of it. But what you do with it is up to you, I guess."
"Thank you, Pete."
"No, thank you. I'm glad I got to know you, Miss Rally. Just working with you for a few weeks...well, enough about that."
She reached out and clasped his hand. If a man like Smith could survive to retirement age with his essentials intact...he was a hope personified, proof that a way forward existed for anyone. "I don't ever want to lose touch with you."
"Ditto." He patted her hand and released it. "Keep me posted on everything, please, and I do mean everything. I'd take it very kindly."
"Just try and stop me." Rally got up and kissed his cheek. Smith closed his eyes for a moment, then smiled at her.
"Let's get you girls packed up. The sooner you're on the road, the sooner you'll get where you're going. Here, Miss May—you let me carry that ammo box. A lady in your condition doesn't need to be doing any heavy lifting."
In the parking garage, Smith and Rally stowed all the weapons and explosives in the Cobra's trunk. She locked it, and Smith put out his hand to shake hers.
"You call me any time. If you need some info or a word in someone's ear, you've got it."
"I was wondering if you might be able to dig up any information on...someone else. There's no big hurry. I just wanted to mention him."
"Give me some details." Smith half-closed his eyes.
"Well, he's been in the Chicago area for a long time. His reputation now might be as a hitman. Um, he was associated with the Goldie Musou gang for several months. Sort of her chief of staff and bodyguard. And...her executioner. But now he's gone solo...he's doing odd jobs to survive, and he's sworn off anything to do with killing. Still, he's got that on his record, and I don't know if there's anything anyone can do about it." She swallowed hard. "Maybe you already know who I mean."
"Maybe I do, if his nom de guerre is Mr. V. Short for Vincent." Smith rubbed his chin. "Yeah, I was wondering if you'd ever bring him up. Didn't like to unless you asked."
"Then you know about my Daddy?"
"A little." He made a tight grimace. "He's been pretty deep underground. I found out about him a couple of weeks ago, and yes, I've been looking for more. What there is of it."
"I know...that it's not likely he can ever go straight again."
"We are talking about a different order of things from running illegal cargoes, kid." Smith looked sorrowful. "But I'll find out what I can. I'd like to think there's a road back for everyone."
"I hope so. Thank you for finding one for Bean. I think miracles can happen sometimes."
"Yeah, when you take the bit in your teeth and make 'em happen. You tell him about the deal the first time you get hold of him, you hear me?"
"I promise I will."
"You're authorized to employ extraordinary measures in the cause. If that man tries to abscond when he sees you coming, tell him from me that he's a coward."
"He's got something for the asking that men lie, cheat and steal for and still may never get in a lifetime. What I'm offering is better than money, because this is to let him have something that money could never have bought. All he's got to do is reach out and pick it up."
"You mean...a chance to go straight?"
"Yeah, that's what I mean." He shook her hand again with a smile. "Godspeed. We'll meet again."
"Of course we will. Goodbye, Pete." She gave him a hug, climbed behind the wheel and pulled out of the Federal Building's garage for the last time. In the rear-view mirror as she emerged into the bright day, she saw Smith with his right hand raised in farewell.
"This isn't how you get to the freeway, Rally! You need me to navigate?" May held up a map.
"No, I know where I'm heading…it's just a quick detour." Rally turned and headed southeast.
"Um…the waterfront?" May folded her map and grimaced at the passing brick warehouses. "Are you sure?"
"Uh-huh. I need to take one more look…and there was one other thing I needed to do before I blew this city." She pulled to the curb when a car left a metered space. "We'll have to walk a couple of blocks, I guess, since there's no place to park nearby with all the construction vehicles in the way." They exited the car and crossed the street, heading towards two large open spaces that faced each other. One on land, one on the water; the burned warehouse had been torn down and the bricks cleared away, and the pier's destruction had left no traces at all. Even the flanking gatehouses were gone.
Posted by the construction fence that surrounded the pier's former grounds, a security guard looked up as they approached and made a gesture to halt them. "Sorry, girls. Too hazardous for sightseeing."
"Hi! I'm Rally Vincent." Rally extended her hand, and the man straightened up with a startled expression.
"Wow! I shoulda recognized you from the news…and you're Minnie-May, right?" He grinned and shook hands. "Hey, you ladies investigating the scene of the crime? Not much left, but take all the time you want." He unlocked the gate for them. They walked between the bare patches of earth and looked out over the bay. The sky was clear, the breeze cool, and the gentle waves lapped at the sea wall with a sound like murmuring voices. Rally opened her purse and took out a box of candles and four small boats made of red and gold paper.
"What's that?" asked the guard.
"Larry gave those to you?" May unfolded the boats while Rally dug a book of matches out of her purse.
"Uh-huh. They're to help guide the souls of the dead to the next life…or something. I kind of liked the idea, anyway." The guard showed them a ladder that led down to a small floating wooden dock in the shadow of the next pier; they descended to the water and sat on the dock. Rally struck a match and cupped the tiny flame in her hand. May helped her place a lit candle in each of the little paper boats, and together they launched them into the bay. The boats bobbed and rocked in the waves, slowly making headway.
"Have you heard about Manny's plea bargain?" said May. "Reduction to manslaughter and five years in the pen, in exchange for testimony."
"Sounds about right to me." Rally folded her arms with her eyes still on the boats and candles; she noticed a few broken bits of charred wood floating beside the dock. "The poor kid…"
"Hmm? Tiffany?" May grimaced. "I guess she won't get to see him for a while. If ever."
"At least she won't have any problem finding out exactly where her Daddy is." Rally gave a short laugh and shook herself. "Maybe Sarah Brown will wait for him. But I guess she's sort of been in jail herself for the last five or six years..."
They watched the boats until they had drifted out into the clear area once covered by the Dragon pier. Sun glittered off the water, flinging bright shards of light into her eyes; the candle flames were invisible now, but when they ascended the ladder to return to the car Rally could still see the four little red craft, sailing together into a great expanse of green water.
"May, start making a list. Bean's contacts, everyone we can think of. Chicago, New York—and I can give you some West Coast info too."
"Good, let's get systematic!" May took out a notebook and tapped it with a pencil point. "All right, I'll put down all of his clients. I wonder how long he can stay away from the business! I'd bet you he'll set up shop somewhere pretty soon under another name."
"I'd bet that too. It's not like he does it only for the money!" Rally powered up an on-ramp and slipped into a gap in traffic. The skyscrapers of downtown San Francisco rose up to their right, shining in the sunlight.
"Nice view…" May glanced up from her notebook. "This really is a pretty city."
"Uh-huh." Rally looked over her shoulder and let a few of her memories of San Francisco sink under the surface in favor of more buoyant thoughts. "Maybe…I'll come back some day. See the Sams and do a little touring around."
"On vacation? Boy, I've had enough vacation to last me years! I can't wait to do some WORK!" May laughed and kept writing. "What was the name of that guy who wanted to hire Bean to help him move house, and Bean thought it had to be a joke, and then it turned out most of the load was grow-lights for a pot farm in the basement?"
"Oh, Rick or Ricky or something…I'll have to go through my files when we get home." Rally yawned and shifted gears.
"You look awfully tired, sweetie. How much actual sleep did you get last night? Maybe three hours?"
"Something like that." Rally rubbed her eyes with the fingers of one hand. "In bits."
"How can you drive eight hours on three hours of sleep? I'd be dead!"
"Hey, you'll be doing things on not a lot of sleep when Junior comes along. People must manage somehow."
"I guess. But I know it'll take some getting used to…"
"I'll be OK." Rally yawned again. "Just keep the conversation going and I won't get too drowsy."
"If you do, let's just stop for a while so you can take a nap. There isn't any huge hurry."
"May, we're going to L.A. to meet Ken! Why wouldn't you be in a hurry?"
"Oh, just because." May reached out and touched Rally's right hand. "It occurs to me…that this is probably the last day we'll have together."
"By the time Kenny's job in Hollywood is finished, I'll be almost ready. Junior will be ready, I mean. I'll be a mommy before you know it...and like you said, I'll be functioning on no sleep and lots of dirty diapers! We're probably not going to have another chance to be together. Just you and me and no one else."
"Things change." Rally gave a sad little shrug and squeezed May's hand. "I guess you're right."
They finished their list and May turned on the radio. For a while they listened to music and traffic reports while Rally drove the curving freeway through golden hills interspersed with golf courses, suburbs and groves of oak trees. Traffic lightened and fell away to almost nothing. She watched seagulls spiral above a lake in a long valley and wispy tongues of fog venture over the ridges from the coast. The radio's reception finally fizzled out among the hills and Rally turned it off.
"Uh, May...it's the days right before your period that you're not fertile, right?"
"Hmm?" May looked up from reading the manual for her new digital camera.
"The last eight days or so of your cycle. You told me that, didn't you?"
May blinked. "Your fertile days? When's it due?"
"And you, uh, obviously have some reason to inquire." She cocked her head and raised a brow. "You telling me something slipped off in the heat of the moment?"
"No...we didn't use anything. He was going to run out for condoms, and I stopped him. I know, it was stupid—but it seemed like a good risk to take at the time."
"Whoa. Bareback the whole way? That must have been a pretty hot ride! Oh, Rally." May shook her head. "Rally, Rally..."
"If it's due on Friday..." She gave a heavy sigh.
"Oh, shit! I got it wrong! I knew it! Oh, SHIT!" Rally banged her forehead on the steering wheel. "Aggh! I'm going to have BABIES! Gigantic, black-haired babies with feet like—"
May shrieked with laughter. "Sorry! Joke! You're safe as houses, sweetheart."
"Yep! Don't worry. But next time use something, for crying out loud! You want expert birth control advice, you got it right here." She patted Rally's thigh. "Call me! Like every day! I want to hear every gory detail."
"Next time? What next time?"
"There will be a next time. A thousand next times." May leaned forward. "Rally, you don't honestly think he's going to stay away from you. No man would have the strength."
"Bean? I don't think the human average applies."
"No, I guess it doesn't. Which means when HE'S in love, it isn't fireworks and cannons, it's ballistic missiles and H-bombs—hey, speaking of ballistic, what's his statistics, anyway?"
"You know—how much he's got! I'm dying of curiosity!" May waggled her brows. "He sure has a fully-stocked meat counter, but since I never got hold of it hard—"
"Oh, he didn't tell you about that? Tsk tsk—and I'm sure you asked about his history beforehand!" She gave an exaggerated sigh and rolled her eyes. "It was such a brief, clandestine encounter..."
Rally bared her teeth at May. "No teasing! He wouldn't sleep with YOU for—"
"Geez, pay attention to the road, why don't you? Look how JEALOUS you are!" May laughed.
"You're darn tootin' I'm jealous—if I ever see him messing with another woman the way he did with Sue Wojohowicz, I'm going to scalp him!" Rally growled and worked her fingers on the steering wheel.
"Good! He deserved scalping! But of course Bean didn't sleep with me—I'm talking about when he had to pose as a john to get me and Tiffany out of the Dragon whorehouse."
"You had to put on an act?" Rally looked suspiciously at May. "And the horndog really got into it, right?"
"Hell no! He couldn't get away fast enough—I think I terrified him."
"Yep! Nothing doing. Rally, you're calling HIM a horndog? You know what? I think he must have some kind of thing in his past—he sure gets some heavy trauma about anyone thinking he might like to molest women."
"Well, uh, yeah, I noticed that too." Rally gulped. "Actually, he told me some things...well, I'd need his permission to give you details, but you're right. Which of course means he doesn't do anything that might be scary without checking first."
"Aw, that's so sweet. I can just see this great big guy politely asking if he can rip your clothes off and ravage you senseless!"
"Something like that." Rally blushed. "It's, uh, actually pretty sexy..."
"Of course it is! Right then when he came to get me out of the Pink Pearl, I think I might have let him do whatever he wanted if he'd wanted it! I love the guy, OK? But he's yours, one hundred percent. As far as I'm concerned, he deserves you. And coming from me—that's saying something."
"So what's he got? Eight inches? Ten? C'mon!"
"You think I keep a yardstick under my pillow? I wouldn't care if he had TWO inches!" Rally suddenly grinned and wriggled in her seat. "As long as he still had a tongue..."
"Oooh! This I GOTTA hear!"
"Well, I remember you asked me once if he had technique. I think I figured out what you meant. Six or seven times."
"And he passes the clitmus test with flying colors! Wow, I wonder if that's got anything to do with how much he likes to EAT! Can you spell 'oral fixation'?" May whooped with laughter.
"May, that's just...gross! Oh, I wanted to ask you—where's the G-spot supposed to be?"
"You think he found yours?"
"Well, if that wasn't it...I'd sure like to know what it is!"
"Ooh, ooh, I'm a love machine...and I don't work for nobody but you..." crooned May. "No wonder he kept you going till the wee hours! OK, see, if this is your pussy..." She demonstrated with a finger thrust into her fist. Rally kept one eye on the road and asked technical questions all through Silicon Valley.
"Wow, look at all these cool old cars!" Rally looked into her rear-view mirror; they had turned onto an undivided country highway on the way out to the valley and I-5, and she had acquired a long train behind her. Every one was a pre-1974 American model. "You think it's a car club outing or something? There sure are a lot of classics on the road in California, but this has to be the most I've seen all at once."
"Looks like it." May pointed at a sign next to a sagging barn. "Ooh, let's stop here!"
"Oh, good grief. We've barely been driving ninety minutes and you want to get off at Casa de Fruitloop?"
"Casa de Fruta," corrected May. "Yes, I do! I've got to pee. Junior's sitting heavy on my bladder these days."
"All right, in that case…"
"We need snacks for the drive anyway, and they have a candy store and this incredible fruit stand. It's cute! You'll like it!"
"I don't do cute." Rally rolled her eyes, but turned off at the exit. The classics all followed suit. The place sat in a little valley just below the highway, a series of quaint buildings strung out along the frontage road and interspersed with parking lots. Many of the spaces were occupied, some with current models, but two of the lots near the picnic area were thickly parked with classics. "Casa de Coffee? Casa de Deli? Oh, please."
"Hey, it's got to be a perfect meeting place for these old guys with old cars. Nice drive on the way, and plenty of eats when you get there! Look, there's a space."
Packards, Studebakers, Corvettes, Mustangs, Barracudas. Everywhere she looked, she saw gleaming chrome, tail fins and muscle cars. Her own Shelby Cobra hardly stood out at all in such company. Rally pulled up next to a display of old farm machinery painted in bright colors. Children climbed to the seats and pretended to drive the tractors and harrows while their parents took pictures. Across another parking lot she glimpsed a tiny excursion train packed with tourists. It rattled through a wooded area full of artificial ponds and slightly shabby model buildings like a home-made miniature golf course.
"Oh, man...May, this place is so cheesy I could spread it on crackers!"
"Whatever! Just go admire some cars while I'm shopping." May jumped out of the car and a blast of music entered from outside. "I know where the bathrooms are, so I'll run over—oh, hey."
"What?" Rally got out and shut the door. "Is that their sound system? Do they think we're all deaf?"
"No...uh, it's a radio." May looked shocked, and pointed.
"A radio? At that volume? What a jerk—guys like that really ought to—" She spotted what May was pointing at.
"Well, I tried to
make it Sunday, but I got so damn depressed
That I set my sights on Monday and I got myself undressed,
I ain't ready for the altar but I do agree there's times
When a woman sure can be a friend of mine..."
All she could see of him, thirty yards away, was a pair of mile-long blue-jeaned legs. One was drawn up, and the other stuck straight out onto the blacktop as Bean lounged in the driver's seat of his L-88 Corvette. His boot heel rested on the ground next to a boom box with enormous speakers, the source of the loud music. He shifted, planted his feet and sat forward with an extra-large iced Coke and a sack of burgers in his hand. One of the burgers vanished into his mouth almost as soon as he unwrapped it; he chased it with half the Coke and another burger.
"Oh...my...God." May looked up at her.
"Yeah, I'll second that." Rally's voice was high and faint; she could not control her breathing well enough to speak calmly. May took her arm for support.
"Does this, uh, remarkable coincidence suggest anything to you?"
"He...he couldn't be expecting us to come through here...he probably thinks we're hundreds of miles to the south already." She closed her eyes for a moment and fought down an attack of dizziness. All of her fatigue seemed to catch up with her at once.
"Yeah, if we'd left earlier."
"This is the only place in miles where you can get a hot meal and a cold drink...but he ought to be in Reno by now! This is crazy...I'm hallucinating!"
"There, there, sweetie." May gave her a hug around the waist. "Rally…he's here. It's not a dream. It's really him…"
"Well, I keep on
thinking 'bout you, Sister Golden Hair surprise
And I just can't live without you; can't you see it in my eyes?
I been one poor correspondent
and I been too, too hard to find
But it doesn't mean you ain't been on my mind..."
Rally stood trembling in the circle of May's little arms, words and images jumbling through her mind. She'd promised to tell Bean about the deal the next time she saw him. In several months or even a year, when the acute edge of desire might have blunted a little, when the mere sight of him didn't send arrows through her heart. Was her love ever going to ache less than it did right now?
May moved around behind her and gave her a light push. "Aren't you going to go talk to him? Kind of looks as if he means to talk to you as soon as he can."
"How do you know that? I've got no idea what he has in mind!" She tried to backpedal. "What if he—I think we should just get straight back in the car and—"
"Uh-uh! You promised Pete, remember?"
"Y-yes, I remember…"
"So walk right up and get it over with! Just give him the FBI offer and see what he says."
Rally clenched her quivering lips and took a deep breath. "Stay with me, please. Don't run off to give us some privacy, OK? I'm going to need plenty of moral support!" She clamped a hand on May's shoulder.
"Privacy?" May glanced around the noisy, crowded parking lot. "I don't think that's going to be a problem, honey!"
"Will you meet me in
the middle, will you meet me in the air?
Will you love me just a little, just enough to show you care?
Well, I tried to fake it, I don't mind saying, I just can't make it..."
Someone with an official air and a name tag on his shirt approached the Corvette, probably to tell Bean to turn the radio down. Bean drained his Coke, wiped his mouth and stood up. He stretched to his full height and rolled his head around on his thick neck. Then he shouldered out of his armored jacket and threw it in the car. Huge, knotted and scarred, his muscular arms flexed as he crushed the plastic cup to a pellet. He hit a trash can twenty feet away with an overhand toss. The man with the name tag halted in mid-stride and moved away.
The boom box blasted out into the hot parking lot.
"Kicking off seven in a row with America," said the deejay in thunderous tones. "Bay Area classic rock, less talk on KFOX 98.5, coming at you with a peaceful, easy feeling, by special request..."
Bean sat down in the driver's seat of the Corvette again, one foot on the pavement and one in the car, and leaned back. He took off his sunglasses, picked up something from the passenger seat, opened a cover and looked down.
"I like the way your
sparkling earrings lay
against your skin, it's so brown
and I wanna sleep with you
in the desert tonight
with a billion stars all around…"
Rally approached him with her hands over her ears against the loud music, May right behind her.
"Hellooo, Bean!" May spoke first, to Rally's great relief.
He gave an enormous start, the black folder jerking in his hands. On top of the front page lay a photograph, apparently the item he had been examining. It jumped clear of the folder and slipped off his lap. Bean tried to snatch it in mid-flight, but it evaded his grasp and fluttered to the ground. He had a panicked air; although he didn't turn to face them, Rally saw his ears redden.
"Uh...hi, kid." Bean bent down, half-glanced around and scrabbled for the photograph. He retrieved it and stuck it back in the folder, but not before Rally got a look at it. It wasn't the mother and child. It was May's shot of her with her hair blowing in the wind, the one Bean had swiped from her hotel room a few weeks ago. Well, maybe that said something…
But he said nothing at all, stuffing the folder down between the seats and remaining in a hunched position. He looked like a cornered animal.
"And I found out a
long time ago
what a woman can do to your soul
Ah, but she can't take you anyway
You don't already know how to go..."
"Aren't you going to say hi to Rally?" chirped May. "See, she's right here. Gosh, you know that radio's awfully loud—"
Rally found her voice, a surprisingly strong and calm one. "Hello, Bean."
His whole body vibrated, but he didn't look at her. "…Yo."
"Bean, I can't tell you how grateful I am that you have not chosen to subject the world to the undoubtedly soul-destroying experience of listening to you wail along with the Eagles, but I really think you ought to turn the volume a little lower."
Bean reached down and clicked the radio off, still not looking at her. She noticed it was an expensive shortwave model—he could probably get Tokyo on that thing. A bag of unshelled walnuts sat on the seat beside him. He grabbed a handful and stuffed two in his mouth; she heard the shells splinter between his teeth.
"So…I thought you were driving east. As early as you could make it, or something like that." She glanced at May, who gave her an encouraging nod.
"Yeah." He spoke through a mouth full of walnuts and spat out shell fragments like bullets.
"OK, so how do you get a hundred miles south of San Francisco by driving east? I don't think I saw that road on the map." She leaned against the car just behind the open driver's door. Bean's shoulder was a few inches from her hip.
"W-well…I collected all my junk and I said goodbye to Frisco. Got on the Bay Bridge about five minutes after six—the morning traffic sucks almost as bad as Chicago. Stopped for gas in Sacramento and bought some grub 'n' stuff for the trip. No such thing as an L-88 with a radio, naturally, and I got a certain fondness for listening to the police band..." His voice cracked, though he seemed determined to stick to banalities. "So, uh, I was aimin' to get over the mountains before lunch. Then I was going to bust ass across Nevada and bunk down when I reached Salt Lake. Can you get a cold beer in that burg? Sometimes I hear you can't."
"Something happen to upset that plan?"
"Not really." He squinted up at the bright sky, sounding a little steadier. "I stopped at Tahoe for about a quarter hour to look at the view and drink a few Buds and then I turned around. Never did get out of freakin' California."
"Aw…I got a notion that there might still be some Dragons left in L.A. Or Brown's people, you know. Kind of an outside chance, but..."
Rally closed her eyes for a moment and bit her lips; his alibi was paper-thin and he knew it. But he couldn't come right out and tell her that he simply had not been able to leave her after all? On one hand, that knowledge warmed her from head to foot; on the other, it might be no use knowing if he was still determined to deny his own motives. Why wouldn't he get up and take her in his arms instead of hunkering in the driver's seat? Or even just look her in the face?
She tried again. "Bean, are you sure wasn't it anything to do with the fact that May and I were going there?"
"Well…sure it was. Hey, I figure it wouldn't do nothing for my rep if you gals got dry-gulched before you even got home."
"Your rep?" She sighed and smiled at the same time.
"Hey, those scumbags are still my deal, so I'm lookin' out for my partner. Never called it quits on that operation, you know."
"I guess we didn't. How long does that apply?"
Bean didn't answer for a few heartbeats, and he sounded almost tentative. "Till we get back to Chicago, I guess." He hung his head and ran a hand over his hair while he stared into his lap. "Or, uh, maybe you…uh, I guess I ain't in any hurry to…" He trailed off and muttered to himself.
"I'm not really in a hurry to get home either." She waited for him to go on.
"Aw, shit…" Bean seemed unable to say anything more for the moment, his shoulders quivering.
"Bean?" she prompted gently.
No response; he clenched a fist against his forehead and looked like he wanted to disappear off the face of the earth. Was he that embarrassed at being found out? Or was he trying to find the words to tell her exactly why he had driven such a long and roundabout route to get right back to where he had woken up this morning?
Rally moved back and peered into the car to give him a little breathing space. She saw a number of music CDs scattered in the passenger foot well, along with the crumpled sack of burgers, a road map folded to show a section of central California, an unopened pack of extra-large tube socks, a half-consumed case of Budweiser in the can and most of the empties, crushed flat in a fist rather than under a boot. Smiling at the bachelor mess, she put a hand on the car's hardtop. The midnight-blue paint sparkled in the sun.
She almost whispered it, but May heard.
"What do you mean, geography? He forgot how to read a map and got lost?"
"I guess that must be it." Rally rolled her eyes and started to turn away. May poked her.
"Hey, wait! You've got something to tell him!"
"Oh…right." Smith's offer had gone clean out of her head at the first sound of Bean's voice. "Um…Bean…"
"Yeah?" he said in a hopeless croak.
"Thank you for the earrings. I'm glad you were the one to give them to me."
"Bean, I am not playing this game. Just say, 'You're welcome, glad you liked them,' or something like that."
He was silent.
"At any rate, I appreciate the gift, and Agent Smith said it was all right to keep them, so I kept them. Maybe someday…I can put them on for you."
"You checked it with Smith?"
"I dropped by the Federal Building on the way out of town. Sure, I guess I needed his blessing in some respect, and I got it. And…I promised him I'd tell you something the next time I saw you."
Bean straightened up just a fraction. "What?"
"He told me about the conversation you had at the Sam party regarding some information he'd like to get from you. He couldn't put his whole offer on the table right then, but he can do it now, and he asked me to pass it on."
Bean was obviously paying attention; his whole body seemed tense and alert. "Yeah?"
"Pete said...that he wanted to arrange blanket Federal immunity for you, and that he's going to go through Roy about anything that falls under the auspices of the Chicago police. He wants...to help you wipe the slate clean."
His jaw clenched hard, muscles bulging in his neck; a tremor went through him. He took a deep breath before replying.
"He figures that's worth something to you. Better than money, he said, because of what money won't ever be able to buy you. And he knows there are some things even money won't get out of you. So he's offering this instead...or what it could let you have."
Rally closed her eyes for a moment and tried to breathe slowly. What would he say to this? Perhaps this was the real moment of truth; not what he did when trying to protect her from herself, not what he could bring himself to say out loud. What he would do with a new life, a life he could live in the full light of day instead of in shadow. Would he ever turn towards the sun of his own free will?
Bean was silent again. She tried to catch a glimpse of his face in the rear-view mirrors. Just his eyes: staring at some invisible point far ahead, wide and unblinking.
"Better than money." It was almost a whisper.
"Well, um—I guess the offer is good for another few months, though the sooner the better, I think, since Pete's retiring, and he said that he was sort of in your shoes once and someone gave him a hand up and told him to pass it on, and that's what he'd like to do for you, and, um, I guess for…but anyway, he wants to be kept posted in general, and, um, he's rooting for, um, us."
"Frankly, I think he'd like to put this through on the strength of what you've already done. But, you know, he's got to sell it to his superiors, and of course to Roy, though if you look Roy up when you get home that might not turn out to be as hard as it might have seemed, speaking of God-given coincidences. Just give it some consideration, OK?"
She could tell Bean was doing exactly that; the set of his shoulders told her volumes. "What…it could let me have?"
"That's more or less how he put it. You do the math."
He finally turned and looked her straight in the face. His lips were twitching, his cheeks pale. "You ask Smith to do this?"
"No. I had no idea it was on his mind…or that it was even possible."
"All on his lonesome, he comes up with it?"
"As far as I can tell. May?"
May nodded gravely. "He said he likes you, Bean."
"Likes me?" His eyes narrowed.
"Oh…well…" said May vaguely. "If you get right down to it…" She inclined her head at Rally and pursed her lips.
Bean suddenly seemed even more alert, his gaze punching straight through her and his teeth showing. "Yeah? What's he think he's gonna get in return?"
Rally stared at him. "You mean like some valuable crime-fighting information? Bean—"
"You know what I mean! This guy keeps doin' you some damn big favors!" His hand gripped the top of the driver's door, the tendons standing out in sharp lines. "Never heard of a Fed that would even give a bounty hunter the time of day."
"Ooh, you might have a point there…" cooed May.
Bean's face darkened. "If he put one goddamn finger on you—"
"No, of course not! Pete's a gentleman." Rally was about to laugh off the whole idea, but relaxed into a smile; why not tease him a little? Smith was out of harm's way, and obviously May figured a touch of well-placed jealousy might goad Bean into making a declaration. Definitely worth a try!
"But I admit I've always had a soft spot for older men." Rally gave Bean a wink. "Especially when they can appreciate a GT-500. Did you notice, he even repaired all the damage YOU caused!"
"Shit!" Bean's boots hit the ground; he vaulted out of his seat and loomed over her like a thunderhead.
Rally took two full steps backwards; she had expected a reaction, but nothing this violent! "Bean? What's the…?"
Bean's face reddened; his fists clenched. "I heard some FBI guys talkin' about you and Smith at the wing-ding. They figured there was no way the bastard wasn't gettin' some, 'cause he'd laid out his whole next month's budget just on those car repairs!" He took a deep rasping breath and his mouth contorted. "Yeah, I know they were only blowin' shit about you, but it sure wasn't a lie from Smith's side of it!" He stabbed a finger straight north. "You tell him he can shove that immunity where the sun don't shine!"
"I ain't takin' nothing from that sonofabitch, you hear me?" His eyes looked wild, on the verge of losing control. "I oughta drive straight back there and snap his fucking—"
"Oh, spare me! That's the stupidest thing I've heard from you all day, and that's saying something!" Rally stamped her foot.
He blinked at her, obviously shocked out of his rage.
"Geez! The chance of a lifetime, and you're going to get in a snit about a RUMOR? Don't you recognize a GIFT when you see it, you idiot? Can't you even be HAPPY for one second?"
"I'm not sure I ever want to tell you good news again!" Rally put her fists on her hips and glared up at him. "God, Bean, what does it take? Grow up, you…you lock-jawed shithead!"
May gave a surprised little gasp, but after glaring back for a moment, Bean half-smiled.
"Yep, that's me." He tilted his chin up and folded his arms, squinting at the bright sky.
"You bet your ass." She rolled her eyes. "You are unbelievable. Anything nice that anyone would do for you has to have ulterior motives? Pete's even willing to tailor everything to your god-damned professional scruples. If I'd had anything to do with it, I'd make you work a LOT harder for a free pass like that!"
Rally stopped, her lips trembling. "Speaking of which…" she went on in a softer tone. "Before we left we heard about the donation to the victims' fund, so it's perfectly obvious that you know what generosity means."
He looked down at her, but his glance was guarded. "Generous?"
"I know, you're going to say it was all according to our partnership agreement and had nothing to do with any personal qualities of yours. Fine, you think that if you like. Just realize…that when they know about everything you've done…other people might think of you…as a good man." Her throat threatened to choke up. "Even…as a hero. And they might believe…that a little compassion applied to your situation…would go a long way." Her voice wobbled, so she gulped and looked down, covering her lips for a moment.
Bean looked deeply awkward again and shoved his hands in his jeans pockets. Somehow that gave her heart; she tilted her face up to him and smiled. "Well, you've heard the offer, I've kept my promise, and we're heading south after we freshen up a little. How soon do you bet I'll catch up to you and leave that L-88 in my dust?"
Bean chuckled almost gratefully and leaned a hip against his car. "You can try."
"Thanks, I will."
"I haven't really pushed this baby to her limit yet. Of course, I'll have to tune her to my own specs when I get home...and I'm thinkin' I'm going to change the wheels and take a good look at the shocks." He craned over one shoulder to apply a critical glance to the left rear hubcap and rested an elbow on the hardtop. "But I'll let her take it easy after that, 'cause I'm already workin' on what's going into Buff Two."
"Ooh, that sounds like a project. What's your parts and development budget? I'll hazard a guess—six million dollars?" Teasing definitely put her on firmer ground.
He glanced sharply at her. "Don't think I'd need to spend it all on one car."
"Still, I bet you'll be able to fly that thing to the moon! You'll have to tell me how it's going."
He chuckled again. "Sure I will. Maybe you can drop by my designer's place and take a look-see when we got somethin' to show you."
"I'd like that. I don't suppose you're going to let me drive it, though!"
He shrugged. "Hey, you did fine with the 'Vette. Why not?"
"Thank you...for the compliment." She gave him a sweet, seductive smile.
Bean showed no reaction for a moment, then his eyes lost focus and he blushed to his hairline. Rally moved a little closer, patted the top of the car right next to his arm and looked up at him through her lashes. "I liked that drive very much, by the way. Did I show my appreciation properly?"
May was doing a very bad job of suppressing her giggles. She hugged herself and gave two thumbs-up to Rally.
A pause; Bean scratched his jaw and hid his mouth with one hand, but she saw him gulp hard. "Uh, yeah, no problem. Glad you enjoyed the, uh, ride." He swallowed again and pushed some loose hair off his forehead. She noticed a faint pink bite mark showing above the collar of his T-shirt. "Uh, that L-88 does purr like a kitten. It's a good machine. Kind of pretty, too. Never hurts."
Their eyes met. Bean's chest gave a heave; his color changed. Emotion tormented his features; he was obviously aching to let something out, almost begging himself to be allowed to speak.
He took a very deep breath and leaned a little forward, changing the angle of the sun on his face so that he no longer had to squint into the light, and looked down at her. Rally looked back, searching for something that had to be there. She hoped he was doing the same.
Bean slowly moistened his lips as if in preparation, but only held her gaze. Did he still need some cue from her, or from his own mind? What on earth WOULD it take? The moment was slipping away, and her heart contracted. May's camera clicked loudly in the silence, and both Bean and Rally jumped.
"Hey!" Bean's voice was suddenly harsh. "You takin' mug shots for the cops?"
"No, I'm just testing my fancy new Japanese digital thingie." She examined the tiny screen on the back of the camera, but from Rally's angle it was blank. "Nice car."
Bean gave her a suspicious look. "Don't go takin' pictures of me, kid. It ain't good for my health."
"Geez, Mister Paranoid!" May stuck out her tongue at him. "Why would I want pictures of YOU? Oooh, I need another pair of sunglasses, Rally! They sell them over there—I'll meet you in the candy store. Bye, Bean!" She skipped off.
They were left staring at each other, the mood completely broken. Bean flushed and gazed at the sky, digging his hands into his pockets.
"Well, have a good trip," said Rally after waiting in vain for anything more. Impatience vied with sympathy in her breast; she knew very well how hard this must be for him, but obviously she would hear nothing from him today, and possibly not ever. Despite her frustration, she managed a smile. "Don't get any speeding tickets." Bean snorted, but said nothing. "See you later."
As she walked over to the candy store, she heard the unmistakable deep snarl of the L-88 starting up behind her, but she didn't break stride. So he was going. The sound of the engine retreated and faded.
May came in after a few minutes with a shopping bag, got a strawberry cone at the ice cream counter and sidled up to Rally. "So…any progress?"
"No. He didn't say a word after you left."
"I thought I heard the car." May tilted her head. "Sorry I might have spooked him with the camera, but it was kinda hard to resist the opportunity…"
"Oh, GOD! Why did we have to run into him here?" Rally grabbed a box of walnut fudge. "This is awful—he's all humiliated and self-conscious because there's no logical explanation EXCEPT coming back to find me, and he was probably planning to sort of casually run into us down south once he'd thought of something reasonably plausible so he could save a little face, and now he's going to bolt straight for home just like he meant to when he left, and…"
"So he doesn't get to have it all his own way for once? Aw, poor baby!" May grabbed a pound box of chocolate-pecan turtles and tossed it into Rally's shopping basket. "Come on, Ral—that's a guy who's got plenty of face to spare. He'll recover!"
"You think so?"
"Yep. Shouldn't take him too long!"
Rally shook her head in despair. "Obviously he finds it just about impossible to SAY anything! Even when he's close, he's miles away…"
"Well, yeah, I think you're right about that! But gosh, even if he does feel like a total fool right now, this was pretty brave of him. I mean, after making such a big deal out of all his reasons for running away, he tosses everything to the wind and goes in search of the woman he couldn't leave behind?"
"I…I thought that walking out of that hotel room was one of the hardest things he'd ever done in his life…"
"And probably about five minutes later he realized WHY it was so hard, because he was dead wrong on just about every count and he'd broken your heart in a bad cause." May shook her head. "Nope, I wouldn't be him right now for a million bucks!"
"You think he's ashamed of himself?" They stood in line at the busy cash register.
"Totally! But gosh, he's such a romantic!" May bounced up and down and took a big lick of her ice cream, waggling her tongue over the peak of the scoop. "Makes me feel all tingly…"
"How fast did he have to drive to get to Lake Tahoe and back by this time, do you think?"
"Yeah, but I bet the outbound leg was slow, at least for Bean! Rally, you know what this means! I'm really betting he'll go for some form of Smith's deal, because now it's got to be exactly what he wants. But he didn't need a definite plan like that to bring him back. He had no idea how he was going to make it work when he turned around. He just knew…that he had to do it somehow. For you."
Rally gave an involuntary shudder, a warm and thrilling one. "For me…?"
"Hey, I have something you have got to look at!" May juggled her cone to extract a photograph in a cardboard sleeve from her shopping bag. "Gosh, I totally adore my new camera! They had this cool photo machine in the souvenir stand, so I had to test it. You can make your own enlargements on the spot. I stuck the camera card in and the machine spit the picture out—it was totally easy!"
"Uh…that's nice, May." Rally rolled her eyes with a smile. "You sure are a shutterbug on this trip!"
"You bet! And this has to be the best shot of the WHOLE bunch!" May held it out. "The best pic I ever took in my life! C'mon, look at it. Pleeease!"
"All right…whatever!" Rally put her shopping basket down, took the photograph and slid it out of the sleeve. The glare of the shop lighting bounced off the glossy surface, so she tilted it up to see it better, the image taking a moment to resolve on her retinas.
"What the…? You just took this a few minutes ago!"
"Yeah, that's the cool thing about digital cameras!" May jiggled on her heels, looking expectantly at Rally.
In the picture, Rally stood in front of Bean, who propped one elbow on his car and looked down at her. It wasn't a good likeness of Rally, since only part of her face was visible from the rear, but it was an excellent shot of Bean.
The strong sunlight threw his features into powerful relief, a blue-white glint adorning his black hair. Head bowed a little forward, shoulders squared, he had his gaze fixed on her and his lips set in the slightest, yet warmest, of daydreaming smiles.
Rally drew in her breath. The expression on his face, and especially the expression in his eyes, had seemingly been magnified and concentrated by translation into a flat image. Or somehow the unblinking lens of the camera had captured the ephemeral trace of Bean's thoughts fully revealed on his face, something that had constantly escaped her with the naked eye. Passionate, cherishing, unspeakably beautiful. Her knees felt weak just at the idea that she could pair that emotion with that face.
"Isn't that the most romantic thing you've ever seen? You should send him a copy!" May giggled wickedly. "I think that's good enough for blackmail. Make him admit he's got a heart or you show it all around town!"
Rally knew her own version of that expression was written on her face. "It's…gorgeous."
"Aw, I knew you'd like it! You feel like you know something for sure now?"
Well, of course she knew. She'd always known. She didn't need anyone to draw her a picture...
She looked up, the photograph shaking a little in her hand. "M-May…do you think we'll see Bean again soon?"
"Girl, I think you just might meet him on the road east. Once or twice. At least." She snickered and licked her ice cream again.
"Maybe I will." Rally stared up at the display of multicolored candy canes. How long would it take to make it home? A week? Two weeks if she took the scenic route, with detours and stopovers included. All of a sudden she decided to make her trip into a leisurely tour of the western United States. What was the rush, anyway? Every night, she'd sleep in a motel bed…
"Next, please," said the sales clerk. Rally startled and opened her purse.
After making their purchases, they walked towards Rally's car. Two middle-aged men were stooped over the car, looking in the windows, and Rally greeted them with a wave.
"Is it a '67?" asked one breathlessly. "Gosh, I always wanted one of those."
"Nice seats," said the other. "Great restoring job, miss!" She chatted with them for a moment, then May tugged on her sleeve.
"He's still here." May pointed over Rally's shoulder. "I take back everything I ever said about you having trouble figuring out what the real deal is with you and Bean, because he's the undisputed champion of indecision."
Double-parked under a tree near the road, Bean stood by the side of the Corvette playing with his keys. With a repeated jingling sound, he tossed them up in the air and caught them in his gloved palm. He wasn't looking at her; he seemed even less sure of himself than before, if that were possible.
"I give up," said May. "What is going to make that guy take the leap? He wants it so bad he's practically wetting his pants, and he's still dithering around!"
"Oh…I think I have an idea," said Rally.
"Uh-huh." A strange buoyancy filled her, like a cool breeze across the hot parking lot. She couldn't help smiling; she nearly laughed out loud. "I'm going to speak to him…and this time, in his own language."
Rally handed the shopping bags to May, excused herself to the car aficionados and moved towards Bean. When he saw her striding between the cars, he put his keys in his jeans pocket and unhooked his sunglasses from the neck of his T-shirt. As she approached, he put the sunglasses on and pushed them up the bridge of his nose, running a finger along the frames.
"Something frightening you, Bean?"
"Like what?" He turned his face away, jaw jutting out at a blunt angle.
"Like…making up your mind?"
Rally walked right up to Bean, reached up to his chest and grabbed a handful of his T-shirt. When he looked at her she looped the other hand around his neck, pulled his head down and claimed his mouth with hers.
Bean gasped. His casual stance wobbled as his knees gave way, and she knew not triumph, but serenity. So what if he never said the words to her his whole life long? She didn't need them; she didn't need anything but him. In casting aside her last shield, she had uncovered herself stronger than ever.
He shook from boots to scalp, quaking in her arms. She wondered if she had spooked him; his mouth tensed and closed. But in the next moment his arms locked around her and he parted his lips and kissed her back. Oh, he kissed her back; the dark passion of the night and the bright warmth of the afternoon sun swirled around them so tightly that she knew they could never be unmixed again. His embrace crushed the breath from her, and everything she had ever learned about him made perfect sense.
May jumped up and down next to the Cobra and let out excited little squeaks. Stepping back and holding Bean's hands in hers, Rally smiled at his shell-shocked look.
"Well, here's a proposal…sweetheart." She squeezed his hands and let him go. "We have reservations at the Marriott Hotel next to Magic Mountain. Rooms 427 and 428—one's for May and Ken, and the other's for me. Just come right on up…since I plan to be all checked in and unpacked by the time you make it there."
Since he seemed to have forgotten to breathe, he did not answer her for a moment. "Yeah…OK," he managed to get out.
"But if by some strange mischance you do get there first, I'll look in the bar." She gave him a wink.
He put his hands on his hips and looked at the ground, still trembling slightly. "I guess."
"Sounds like a plan," said Rally after a pause. "Have a nice drive."
"Uh-huh," said Bean, either as an affirmation or in return. His face twitched; he adjusted his sunglasses.
"Goodbye, then." She turned and walked a little unsteadily towards May, who clasped her hands together and against one cheek, smiling so widely her eyes were almost shut.
"This is SO romantic! I love it!"
Rally stung the top of her head with a fingernail. "Stop rubbing it in and get in the damn car." May pumped her fists alternately in the air, giggling like a demented monkey.
"Hey, Vincent?" Bean called out when she touched the door handle of the Cobra. Though he was obviously trying to sound nonchalant, his voice cracked and ruined the illusion.
"Tag me till we get out to I-5, huh?"
"Oh, you feel like kicking off with a drag race?"
"Yeah. Give this b-baby a good run, and, uh..." His eyes were still concealed behind his sunglasses, but his mouth had a faint, smiling slant. It curled into a glorious grin as she watched, the purest happiness she'd ever seen on his face. "I'd surely appreciate another chance at that sweet straight stretch of road."
"You only had to ask." Rally gave him a thumbs-up and a smile. She opened her door as May bounced into the passenger seat, still giggling.
Once more Bean called to her, his voice pealing out across the busy parking lot. "Rally!"
He took a deep breath and cupped his hands around his mouth. "I… LOVE… YOU!"
So loud her ears rang: she almost felt the breeze ruffle her hair. A dozen passing tourists stared at him, and so did Rally. What a set of lungs he had—that tremendous shout should have been heard all up and down the West Coast!
May froze, hands on the dashboard and her mouth wide open. Rally could not speak a word in reply; she grabbed the car roof for support and watched the sky and the ground change places. What had he just done in one audacious stroke? She felt as if a great wild animal had burst free of its cage before her eyes and knocked her down in a single bound.
An animal? The wildest, strongest, most fearless creature that lived: a man in love.
Bean tossed his sunglasses high in the air, flung his arms wide as if to embrace the world and laughed out loud, his black hair flying in the sun. "GOD, I LOVE YOU, RALLY IRENE VINCENT!"
He had given her a promise, that was what he had done. His unbreakable word. She knew beyond all doubt that Bean Bandit kept his promises. To the death...
"Ohhh…!" May came out of her shocked catatonia, put the back of her hand to her forehead and pretended to swoon with romantic ecstasy. All Rally could see of her was a pair of tennis shoes waggling blissfully in the air.
"WELL, I TOLD YOU SO, BEAN!" Rally yelled back with both hands on her bounding heart, her laugh as joyous as his. "BECAUSE I LOVE YOU TOO! AND I'M GOING TO RACE THE PANTS OFF YOU ALL THE WAY BACK TO CHICAGO!"
"I'M GONNA TAKE YOU UP ON THAT, DARLIN', AND I'LL DO THE SAME FOR YOU!"
"YOU'RE ON, ROADBUSTER!"
"YEEEHAW!" Bean jumped into his Corvette with a whoop; instantly the engine roared to life.
Behind the wheel, Rally cranked up the radio, backed up and did a swift 180 to beat the midnight-blue Corvette out of the parking lot, two sets of tires squealing exultantly on the hot California asphalt.