When you're a spy, you live your life by certain rules. Some of those govern your personal relationships. Rough summary? Don't have them. You can pretend to be having one. Or a lot of them. You can have sex. Or a lot of it. It's even okay to act like you're in love. But, when it comes down to it, that's just another cover identity. It has to be that way. People are assets. Their job is to help you accomplish your job. You don't concern yourself with their feelings, if they have feelings. You don't worry about whether they survive. Sometimes, you are the one who ensures that they don't survive. When you're a spy, you live by other principles. Duty, a love of country, commitment to your tradecraft; those are, supposedly, of a higher order. It's easier to live that way then it sounds. Assignments can be short, sometimes. You're in; you're out. What you leave behind, that is just debris. You get your next assignment. You go somewhere else, as somebody else. That's the life, when you're a spy.
Its much more complicated when you get burned and thrown aside by the country you served. Especially, if you get dumped in your hometown. Where your mother lives, an expert hypochondriac and manufacturer of guilt. And your brother who is, by strict definition, a compulsive gambler, thief, and conman. Your family is held as hostages to your good behavior and, ironically, are functioning as someone else's assets. To complicate matters, guess who comes to town? If you forget to change your emergency contact information, it might be your ex-girlfriend. Then she becomes, briefly, an ex-ex-girlfriend. It's like flicking a light switch on and off; there's always a chance of another... well, whatever it is. Then, there's the old friend who was informing on you in order to save his pension. He finally agreed not to tell anybody anything that they didn't know already. The three of us have been working odd jobs together; we're almost like private investigators or, sometimes, more like mob enforcers. We're the last line of defense for the desperate.
The point is: the old rules don't work under these circumstances. Stuck in one place, you develop family ties and friendships and responsibilities to the people around you. It gets very confusing. I just want to get my burn notice overturned. So I can get my job back, my life back, understand my place in the world again. But, there are moments when I'm afraid, when I'm sure, that it's too late for that.
I hadn't seen Fi in over a week. That must be a record. At least, it's a record for our time here in Miami. Before that, I hadn't seen her in almost a decade. There's a story behind that, but it's hard to explain. Once she got to Miami, though, the first thing she did was con me for a key to my apartment. Since then, it's never a surprise to come home and see her at my kitchen counter eating my yogurt or lying face down on my bed with her feet waving in the air. But, after she started seeing Campbell, I felt a little awkward inviting myself to her condo. They had an active relationship, if you know what I mean.
I was, had been, convinced that I couldn't be with Fiona. In a romantic relationship, I mean. I have all these other responsibilities. Finding out who burned me. Taking my mom to the doctor. Working out those 'Fists of Fury', as Victor put it. I spent a lot of wasted time plotting revenge on Carla. All that stuff. I've been telling Fi for a long time that I couldn't be with her. Still, I was surprised when she came to the same realization this year. Though she said we could keep working together, I was afraid, as she walked out my door, that it would be the end of our bond. It was painful when she moved on with her life. Getting back out in the market, as she put it, and she started buying shoes. She even pointed out potential dates for me. But, if it wasn't going to be Fi, it wasn't going to be anybody. I mean, I came the closest with her. So, it's hard. In more ways than one. Because knowing that we can't be together doesn't convince my body that it's out of the question. Especially after she began exuding these powerful pheromones. The fact that they were all directed toward Campbell didn't help as much as you might think.
But, I needed some advice. And it had to do with shopping. This made Fi the perfect person to ask. Though it was early afternoon, she was still in her purple pajama pants and a t-shirt which had been tie-dyed in complementary colors. She seemed surprised to see me and not in a good way.
"Michael, what are you doing here
"Hello to you, too"
"Sorry." She made a little moue of apology. "I'm going insane here. What time is it? Oh, God!"
She had, apparently, every article of clothing she owned spread out over the living room floor. That was a lot of clothes. Three large suitcases were lined up, their lids leaning against the wall. They looked like gaping maws, something Jabba the Hutt would throw you down.
"You do realize that you have to pay for extra bags now, right?"
She gave me an impatient look. "I have to have clothes, don't I?"
"How many clothes ....depends on how many years you're going for." I cleared a space of sweaters off the couch and sat, but, then, had no place to put them. I sat there holding wooly sweaters. They were itchy. And hot. Some of them still had the tags on. "Besides I'm driving!" The look on her face said she was wondering whether my close encounter of the exploding kind had caused more brain damage than previously thought. Or, maybe, she was deciding whether to give me a second head injury.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
She was now throwing apparently random selections into the suitcases. One suitcase was almost full of shoes, as though a Payless had thrown up there. She spun around with a panicked look on her face, but then noticed the sweaters I was holding. She threw them on top of the shoes.
"To Orlando" She was now shuffling through a selection of flirty little dresses and chose two. She reconsidered and added a third. She tossed the other ten or so on top of me. I caught the scent of her favorite perfume - a heady mixture of ...well, something. But it was good, whatever it was.
"Orlando? You need all this for Orlando?" I was distracted by olfactory memories and missed what she said next. "What?"
"Juliet. You remember Juliet."
"No" I didn't know anybody named Juliet. Not in the non-literary sense, anyway.
"My friend who works for the vet. She developed the x-ray of the Dragonov."
I'm sure I never knew her name. She was just a one-time asset. Sometimes, you never know their names; you don't need to. You just know what they can do for you. Okay, Juliet was a nice name.
"We're going for girl's week out. Do some touristy things. Maybe go to Epcot."
I must have looked as doubtful as I felt.
"Maybe!" she insisted. "Check out some clubs. Shop. Have a vacation. You know what that is, don't you?"
Just from rumor. I'm not sure I've ever had an actual vacation. Fi and I went to Donegal Bay once for a week. Does it count as a vacation if you're hiding out? Fi tripped over a suitcase and stumbled over my feet, which was a measure of how distracted she was. She was usually very agile. Painfully so, when she chose to be. "Michael! What are you doing here?"
"I need some advice. I need to get my mom something for her birthday. I usually just wired flowers. But since I'm here, she's insisting I come for dinner. I thought I would ... But, I don't know what to get."
She stopped swirling and looked up at the ceiling. I waited for the wisdom that should pour forth. I knew she adored her own mother, a feisty little thing much like Fiona. But more spiteful. Her mother wasn't fond of me, for some reason.
"Jewelry." she pronounced.
I must have looked stricken. She rolled her eyes at me. "Maybe a birth stone ring. Does she have one?"
"I don't know. What is it?"
"A ring with the kids' birthstones. You're peridot, I think, A ring with your birthstone and Nate's. Put your mom's in the middle. Just tell the jeweler your birthdates and he'll know which stones."
I certainly didn't want my dad's birthstone on there. It would probably be a burning ember from Hell.
"Help me close these suitcases," she said. "I'll sit on them, you zip." I looked through her open bedroom door. The sheets were rumpled. Her closet door was open and it looked jam-packed. How could she still have a full closet ?
"Do you know her size?" She was dragging suitcases to the door.
I hadn't thought of that. I don't usually buy jewelry for people. It seems so personal.
"Get a ring that she wears sometimes and take it with you to the jeweler. Or draw around the inside of her wedding ring."
She was drawing circles in the air with one hand and trying to lift her largest bag with the other. I took it from her. It must have weighed 80 pounds. I picked up a second suitcase and almost reached equilibrium by the time I got to the car. She opened the trunk and we filled it. I did a few back bends, standing by the curb, to relieve the spasms.
I straightened up and found her a half step away, looking up at me. She had on the perfume that made me hungry for strawberry shortcake. I had her whole attention. It has the effect of a bank of flood lights pointed at prisoners in the gulag. With Fiona, that kind of interest could be good or bad. During our time together, it usually meant very good things. At least, until that last time in Dublin. Odds were about even, now, that it could mean frighteningly violent things.
"Goodbye, Mi . . . Michael."
She was out of breath from carrying her bag down. Her look was intent as she leaned toward me. I got the kiss on my left cheek near the corner of my mouth. Close but not close enough. It was all I could do not to turn into it, into her. Hard not to lay my hand along her neck, my fingers behind her head guiding the angle of our kiss. But, we'd had a recent disagreement. Just a little spat, really, about an outside job she'd done. A tiff, until she went ballistic. It got out of hand, as things tend to do with Fiona. We'd both apologized. But, currently, we were concentrating on friendly relations, not erotically-charged. It's a hard line to hold with Fiona. She slid her arms around my waist for a brief, all too brief, hug. I put aside thoughts about the kiss-that-should-have-been and pressed my lips to her forehead instead.
She gave me a half-grin and ducked her head, looking self-conscious for some reason. I leaned back, trying to look into her face. She hadn't been this friendly since our fight. If she wanted to arouse me, to remind me of the power of her sex, to drive me crazy, she could do that without kissing me. She just stands a little too close, in that affectionately aggressive kind of way. That'll do it. So, I was wondering what the hell was going on. A visit to Orlando didn't rank up there with a drive in the Caddy into the unknown and definitely dangerous world of Carla. But, Fi hadn't been out of town since we'd been to Miami. So, who knew? Maybe we were going to be the kind of friends who hugged when trips were involved. She did that little flip thing of her hair over her shoulder and stepped back, almost physically shaking herself.
"You okay, Fi?"
"Yeah! I'm going on vacation. What's not to be okay?" She turned from me, dismissing me. "You better get out of here. I have to get dressed and pack the rest of my stuff in the car."
"Okay, I'm gone. Have a good time. You'll call me when you get back? I may have some work for you, about the burn notice."
She nodded but didn't ask me what kind of work. She didn't seem interested. Well, she was probably figuring out how to get the rest of her closet into another bag. I watched her as she headed back into the building.
I was opening the door of the Charger when I begin to get that off feeling. When your life depends on too many random factors to keep a handle on, you learn that it pays to listen to that little voice that says: something is wrong. Sometimes, it's not a voice but some physical sensation, like the hair on the back of your neck rising. For me, it can be a tension across the front of my forehead, up near the hairline. Like a little itch in your brain and you can't reach in to scratch it. Usually, you don't know exactly what it means. But, it's a time to be cautious: rethink the plan, reassess the people involved, review their motivations. Maybe, work out a better getaway. Or, wonder when I'd had my last tetanus booster. Standing in that parking lot, I had no idea why I was so antsy. A sense of deep unease wormed its way down into my belly.
Fi was going on a vacation. That was a good thing. Right? With Juliet. Maybe. I had been afraid to ask if anyone else was going. But, Fi was acting a little hinky. She definitely wasn't a woman who would get excited about a trip to Epcot. Or even Sea World. She did, however, like rides that went fast, especially if they turned her upside down. I wondered if she was really going with Juliet. I wouldn't think she would lie to me about it. Just the opposite. During her time with Campbell, she had done her best to torture me with his very existence in her life. In her bed, too, but I couldn't think about that now. It had been an effective strategy. Eventually, I twitched whenever she mentioned his name.
Anyway, that wasn't what was off. And I didn't know what was. I pressed the ball of my foot into the edge of the curb, bouncing on the toes of my other foot, teetering on the edge. What the hell was wrong? I slammed the car door shut and turned back toward the building, and paused . . . caught in some twilight zone between knowing and not knowing. She's just scattered because she's going on vacation, I told myself. Too many important shoe decisions. I re-opened the door of the Charger and slid into the seat. I'd see Fi when she got back. We'd spend some quality time together, looking for clues in Carla's financial records.
I was browsing the State Department website when the phone rang. I had recently assigned my mother a separate ring tone, an annoying buzz, so I would always know it was her. This was a double beep.
"Sam, what's up?"
"Michael" I sat up straight because Sam didn't usually have that tone in his voice - halfway to frantic. Sam was a Navy Seal who'd gone into Special Ops. It took a lot to shake him.
"Sam, slow down! What's the matter?"
He was sputtering.
"Just tell me what happened," I said.
"I'm headed toward your mom's house. Meet me there. Now." His voice was tight, pitched higher than usual.
I stood up. "My mom?"
"No, no, she's okay. Well, I guess she is." He answered my next question, without waiting for it. "And, no, I don't know anything new about Nate. Just come, Michael."
I was sorting through weapons and trying to find my shirt. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. Or, . . .no, not really. Just hurry."
His panic was starting to infect me and I still didn't know what the hell was wrong. "What . . ." I grabbed my keys.
His phone made a few weird noises. I heard beeping and, then, nothing. I didn't find that reassuring, somehow. I turned the Charger into a low flying jet all the way to Ma's house. I kept pushing re-dial, but the calls didn't go through. I was hoping it was just his battery that was dead. I had the door open and was running almost before the car stopped moving. I barreled through the door to see my mother standing in her bathrobe, her soapy hair dripping. She gestured toward the spare bedroom.
I could hear moans. If Sam's voice could get that high, there was something very wrong. Then, I knew it wasn't Sam and my knees wobbled. I never wobble. If I was prone to that kind of reaction, I'd have been dead 20 years ago. This felt like an earthquake shaking the foundation of the house.
Fi lay on the bed, her head back. "Don't get blood on the bed. Michael, get . . . it's . . ." Sam was holding pressure on her right leg, but blood was soaking into the sheet below her. She tried to push the comforter off the bed. There was some blood on her light blue shirt, mostly on the right arm but also on her chest. Her face looked like chalk and she was panting.
"Scissors!" I told my mother, who was standing in the hall just outside the door. Mom had been chased by guys with guns; she'd been sent packing to Ft Lauderdale. Worse, she only had Nate for protection, which would be pretty scary for anybody. She had stood toe to toe with my father more than once. But, I had never seen her this frightened. I tried to use a calm tone. "Get me some scissors and clean towels. And a pan of warm water."
Fiona's shirt had buttons down the front and it pulled right open, buttons popping in all directions. Surprisingly, she had a bra on. There didn't seem to be any wound on her chest. The blood must be coming from her arm. Barely stepping inside the doorway, my mother handed Sam the scissors and towels. For a moment, Fi looked as though she would protest. But, she said nothing as I cut up the sleeve. The hole in the front of her upper arm was matched by the larger exit wound on the back of the arm. It wasn't actively bleeding. Her hand was warm and she had a strong pulse in her wrist. The bullet had gone through about an half-inch to the right of the bone.
"I held pressure on her arm in the car." Sam looked pale himself. "Her jeans were so dark. I didn't realize how bad the leg was until we got here. She was dripping blood when I got her out of the car."
I started cutting the pants leg and she made an involuntary chirp. Sam had to let up pressure while I cut the material upward. The blood welled up and dripped down the side of her knee. But, I could see that the wound was about mid-thigh and medial to the femur. It was a much more stellate wound than on her arm. Could it be a larger caliber weapon? Or ammunition that fragmented? Maybe it was a ricochet. Shrapnel? I felt for the large blood vessel in her groin. Her femoral pulses were strong but fast. I pulled off her shoe. It was a brogan, a thick, dark brown leather. I had never seen her wear those shoes before. I stripped off the wooly socks. Her foot was pale and cool. Thankfully, she had a good pedal pulse across the top of her foot. She was lucky; she could have bled to death if the bullet had hit a big artery. I put my hand on her hip and rolled her toward her left side. It was hard to cut through the waistband of her jeans. Sam pulled the cut leg of her jeans apart.
"I just need to look, Fi," I told her.
Well, that explained the wound on the front of her leg. The hole in the front of her thigh was big and jagged because that that was the exit wound. In the back was a small, neat, round hole. Which meant that she had her back to the gunman when he shot her there. She was trying to run away. There must have been a lot of them or Fiona would have just shot them all. Unless she didn't have a gun. That seemed unlikely; Fi always has a gun handy. It's a puzzle to me and a wonder, sometimes, with those outfits she wears. But she has a little holster for her thigh - this right thigh, in fact. Sam folded the towel lengthwise, over and over, and wrapped that around her leg. He crossed the two ends and pulled in opposite directions.
Even with gritted teeth, Fi couldn't handle that. "Not so tight." There was a shrill note to that last word that touched some deep place in me. But, at least, she wasn't moaning anymore.
"How long has it been bleeding like this?" I asked.
"Stopped for a long time," she muttered. "Started again on the plane."
The plane? I thought she was driving. I seemed to have missed something, but that would have to wait.
"How long ago did it happen?"
"Yesterday?" She didn't sound sure. "He put me on the return flight so . . . last night , I think." She shook her head, as though the question was not worth this much effort. She turned her head toward the wall.
I looked at Sam. He motioned toward the door with a jerk of his head. My mother was standing there.
"Got any duct tape?" I asked
She disappeared down the hallway and came back with the tape, some gauze, a pan of water, and what looked like pajamas. The bleeding seemed much less though I didn't loosen the towel to look underneath. Sam lifted her leg and I gave two big, tight turns of the tape around the towel. Fi didn't make a sound this time. Her breathing was fast. She had retractions between her ribs and above her sternum, the skin pulling in with each breath. That meant she was in some respiratory distress. Was it blood loss? It seemed more than would be expected from two flesh wounds. Was it shock? I felt a moment's panic. Was she hit anywhere else, something I'd missed?
"Just the two wounds, right? Fi?" I had leaned over to see her face or I would have missed her slight nod.
"Isn't that enough?" My mother gave me a look and stepped back, like she didn't want to stand too close to me.
I ran my hands over Fi's back and sides. I felt the back of her head. She didn't react when I squeezed her left arm and leg. I couldn't find any other visible or palpable wounds.
"Gonna have to get them off, Fi," I said.
She nodded again, but didn't look at me. I had trouble with the waistband on that side, too, and had to pull it away from her to cut it. With my mother helping me, I eased the jeans out from under her. It was more obvious, then, just how much blood had soaked into the denim. The blood was a clotted, dark brown. Her underwear was lavender and lacy, high-cut bikini briefs. There was blood on them, too. My mother sucked in her breath. I knew what she was thinking because I was trying not to think it. Sam looked sick.
"Are you hurt anywhere else?" I touched the lace around her left leg.
She suddenly seemed to realize what I meant. She shook her head but didn't open her eyes. "No."
I pulled the chair over by the bed and motioned for my mother to sit. "Just wash off the blood on her arm and chest. We'll get her in a clean shirt when I come back. Don't touch her leg."
She put both hands up, palms toward me, and made little pushing motions. She wouldn't dream of it.
I looked back to Fiona and found her watching me.
"I'll be right back," I said.
Sam and I went out and toward the front door.
"What in the hell is going on, Sam?"
"I'm not sure, Mikey. I got a call from somebody. He just said I was to pick her up at the security gate and gave me the time. It was at the international terminal." He glanced at me. "I thought she went to Orlando."
"Me, too," I said. "She came back shot up like that? How did she get on the plane?"
"I asked the same thing, Mike. She wouldn't say much. Just that he, whoever the hell he is, put her 'right back on'." You could hear the quotation marks, from the way he said it.
"Not the guys who shot her, I would guess."
He nodded at me. "If I were a betting man, which I am, I'd say no. The stewardess brought her to the gate in a wheelchair. This woman said Fi complained of feeling faint; she wanted to take her to first aid. I just grabbed the wheelchair and got the hell out of there. We were in the car before I realized her sweater was covering up a lot of blood on her shirt. She had a coat over her legs, so I didn't even see that. Where the hell has she been?"
"I have no idea. New York, maybe? She had some old friends there who aren't friends anymore. That's why she stayed in Miami." I knew that wasn't the only reason she stayed in Miami.
"International terminal," he reminded me.
"What the hell has she been doing? And who got pissed off about it?"
He didn't have any answers for that, either.
"I'm going to get her cleaned up," I told him.
He nodded, but didn't follow me. "I'll go to the drug store."
"Don't forget the thermometer."
Mom had already washed Fi's arm and got her into a short-sleeved pajama top, lime green with tiny frogs. Good, it would be easy to keep an eye on her arm. It wasn't bleeding, but I wanted to avoid bumping it. I put the gauze around her arm and gave it a good wrap of the duct tape.
I have hospital tape," my mother said. I didn't doubt it.
Mom had Fi's panties off already. We were able to keep her mostly covered with a sheet while Ma and I soaked and rubbed off the dried blood on her legs. I tried to be gentle while cleaning off the area around the wound. Fiona got a bulky bandage on that extremity as well. The matching pajama shorts looked too small to be my mother's. We slid them carefully up over the gauze. Fi settled back down with a relieved expression. I realized that the frogs were wearing Santa hats.
"Aunt Dixie sent them for Nate about 10 years ago. She could never remember if my second baby was a girl or a boy." In spite of, or maybe because of, all the tension, we were both having trouble keeping a straight face. Then, she sobered. "She needs to go to a hospital, Michael."
My mother is such a hypochondriac that she would go to the doctor for a hang nail. Or, for nothing. But, I could see where any reasonable person might agree with her. Fi looked at me, alarmed.
"It's okay, Fi. I'm going to take care of it."
My mother huffed once, hard. She picked up the pan of bloody water and left. Fi tried to turn toward me. Her face was drawn, as though her skin was stretched too tightly over her skull.
"It's going to be okay," I told her, again.
She nodded. She always did have faith in me, when it came right down to it. I hoped it was justified this time. Fi has had flesh wounds before. Once was from a run- in with Sam's forces; there had been some hard feelings for a while. But, she had never looked this bad. She had lost a significant amount of blood.
I needed to deal with first things first. "Anybody coming after you?"
She shook her head. "No." That sounded reassuring until she added, "Well, I don't imagine so." There was a trace of her childhood accent in that. Suddenly, it all made sense. I knew where she had been and, in rough outline, what must have happened. It's hard to have old enemies who never, ever forget. And there's nobody like the Irish when it comes to long memories and a bitter taste for revenge.
Sam came back with 2 plastic sacks bulging with supplies: packages of gauze, tape (not duct), antibiotic ointment, iron tablets. There were bottles of Gatorade, Tylenol, and hydrogen peroxide.
I shuffled through the sacks twice. "You forgot the thermometer."
Fi had fallen asleep. Mom leaned in and pressed her lips to Fiona's forehead. My mother had always liked her.
"She's going to be okay, Mom."
"I know." She sounded fierce when she said it. "I was seeing if she had a fever."
"Oh, yeah," Sam said, "my mom always use to do that, too."
Sam motioned me out into the hall. "Mike, I've got somebody coming. A buddy of mine hooked me up with him. He's an internist but he did a lot of ER work. Had some trouble with . . . uh . . . recreational drug use. His license is on hold for another 2 years. In the meantime, he's working at a medical supply company. He's open to a little moonlighting. Discrete is as important to him as it is to his, I guess you could call them, clients."
"That's great, Sam. I think I've figured out where she's been - home to Ireland."
My mother was peering out of the bedroom door. She picked up a clean towel and refolded it, trying not to look like she was listening.
"I thought they were mad at her there," Sam said. "Oh." He nodded and added, "This doctor. He's expensive."
I gave him a look. He waved me off. "I'm just warning you."
"It's okay, Sam. Discrete tends to be expensive."
I went back to Fi's bedside. Mom frowned at me and followed Sam down the hall. I could hear her protesting.
"She needs a hospital! I can't just do nothing."
"We've got a doctor coming, Maddie."
"You've got a doctor who makes house calls for gunshot wounds." My mother could do the scathing-voice thing really well. It makes a comeback hard. Sam didn't try to answer her.
"I'm going to call 911," she said. I could picture her face from her tone of voice. I bet spit was flying out of her mouth. I got to my feet to rescue Sam.
"Maddie, we can't take her to the hospital. Hospitals have to report gunshot wounds." He sounded like he was explaining bumble bees to a preschooler. "Then the police come and wonder why you have those new holes in your body."
"And isn't that better than dying?" She whispered that last word in a sibilant hiss that was totally audible in the bedroom. Fi looked at me, wearily, but with no fear.
"We can't let Fi be questioned by the police. She's probably got warrants, if not a homeland security hold. They'd throw her in some damp, dark hole and never let her out. I'm not even sure she's in this country legally. They might just deport her. And that would be . . ." He paused to let her fill in the blank, but gave up when she didn't answer. "Back to the place where people tried to kill her," he said.
Fi and I watched one another, silent. She turned her face back to the wall and closed her eyes.
"He's here," Sam said.
" Is he off the stuff? I'd rather take care of her myself than have some butcher."
"Mike, he's fine. My buddy said he was very professional. A no-nonsense kind of guy. Seems clean now."
The doctor unfolded himself from the Corvette. He was tall and lean, and his face looked like a hatchet. He was about 6-4 and he probably went to college on a basketball scholarship. He either had a fast metabolism or was a heroin addict. That last possibility worried me. He didn't have the gut of an alcoholic. I'd got a good look at that during my childhood. He introduced himself, with a firm handshake, as Doctor Robert Palmer. Cute. But, he was calm, professional, and had an honest-to-god black bag.
"I didn't think those really existed anymore," I said.
"I bought it at an antique shop." He seemed to understood my look of misgivings. "I'm a board-certified internist, but I've mostly worked in the emergency room or as a hospitalist. I'm not on drugs or drunk or crazy. My license is on probation, but I made it through rehab. I have regular drug testing. I don't drink. I'm not any crazier than most people, now that I don't do ketamine. And the black bag's mostly for effect." He held up two paper sacks.
"I work at a medical supply company. Everything I have here is sterile and is in its original packaging unopened. My instruments are either disposable or, in a few cases, have been autoclaved." He paused for emphasis. "And I don't report intentional injuries."
"She's back here," I said.
He stayed where he was. When I looked back at him, he said, "About compensation. I obviously don't turn in a bill to insurance. I take my money up front. My standard fee for gunshot wounds is five thousand dollars. That includes two follow-up visits. After that, if there's anything that isn't futile, the price is negotiable. No refunds if the patient dies." He made a little gesture of apology for the last.
I hadn't had a paying job in a while. I'd been spending all my time and money on investigating the burn notice. It was going to be tight, but I did have a stash in the garage. It was carefully hidden from both Mom and Nate.
"I've got three thousand in the house. I'll give you the other two when you get here tomorrow."
He eyed me, speculatively. "I hear it's your girlfriend."
Under the circumstances, I didn't think that I should point out that she was my ex-girlfriend. "I'll get your money," I promised.
He must have decided I was good for it, because he headed down the hall. She was laying on her left side with her right arm propped up on a pillow. She seemed to be sleeping and was still breathing fast. With her head turned to the side, I could see the fast flutter of the pulse in her neck.
"What's her name?" he asked.
He touched her back I was surprised at his gentleness. He lay the back of his hand along her forehead. "Fiona, wake up. I'm Doctor Palmer"
She stirred and, blearily, looked up at him. Her paleness had picked up a blue tint. Mom hovered out in the hallway. I gave him what little history I safely could. "Hit your head?" he asked her. "Lose consciousness?" He went through the basic questions: medications, allergies, past history. He had no expression on his face when she listed her past wounds. He was professionally brisk, examining both wounds. Then, he gave a quick look to the rest of her, just as I had, to make sure there weren't any other injuries.
"Mmm. Going to have to debride some here. Maybe a drain in the leg wound. The arm will be fine," he said.
I knew about debridement. It is a doctor euphemism for slicing little bits of dead, or not so dead, organic material off the wound to leave only the healthy tissue. It never felt good in my experience. Fi, from the look she gave him, seemed to have the same opinion.
He dumped the contents of the paper bags out at the foot of the bed. One was filled with bags of saline and orange disinfectant. Packages of suture came with a rubber band wrapped around them. He poked a needle in her vein, hooked up some normal saline, and adjusted the flow wheel to run it in as fast as possible. He had me hold the bag up high while he put up a big plastic hook on the mirror of the dresser. He licked the suction cup first. He hung the bag on the hook. He had remembered to bring a thermometer and he stuck it in her mouth. He counted heart beats and breaths, and took her blood pressure. He listened to her lungs, poked her belly, and felt pulses everywhere. Intermittently, he was humming to himself, almost below the range of human hearing.
He pulled little bottles out of his black bag and injected two of them with saline. He filled two syringes and gave the drugs through her intravenous line. "One for the wounds, one for the incipient pneumonia," he explained. The third bottle was morphine. He grinned at my expression. "Not my drug of choice. Even when I was doing drugs."
Fi roused up at that statement and gave me a look, like she hoped I knew what I was doing. Or, maybe, like I'd better know or she was going to kick my ass. "I don't take pain meds," she said. "They make me loopy."
"I'm about to do some nasty things here," he said. "You're going to want to be loopy."
He slid the needle into the hub of the iv line and pushed slowly, even as she was frowning and pulling her arm away. Halfway through the syringe, she relaxed and made no further protest. He measured a small volume out of another bottle and diluted it with saline. His movements were smooth and practiced
"A little midazolam, a sedative and an amnestic. It will be better if she doesn't remember this part."
The next period of time was full of unpleasant necessities. The medicine didn't totally put her out, of course, because he didn't want her to forget to breathe. At the same time, it was enough to release her natural inhibitions against showing pain. She dozed and, then, woke when he hurt her. Sometimes, she cried a little and, then, would doze again. It went on and on. When she woke up enough to curse him, he gave her a second dose of the sedative. . I handed him frightening medical paraphernalia. I held her hand at times and held her limbs down at others. When it was done, I lay my head beside hers on the pillow; I promised her that she would be okay. My mother and Sam, the cowards, were hiding at the other end of the house.
He hooked up a second bag of intravenous fluids and adjusted it to a slower drip. He showed me how to change the bags when needed. I got directions on taking temperatures and recording respiratory rates. He left detailed instructions on possible complications. He left his cell phone number and a bottle of Percocet for the pain. I was pretty sure you couldn't buy that at a medical supply store, but I didn't comment.
He stood looking down at her.
"She's beautiful," he said. "It should be a crime to shoot someone so beautiful."
That must be what passes for doctor humor. But, strangely, I felt gratified. Because at that point, she was chalk-white, her hair was sweaty and past the point of being frizzled, and tears had left smudged trails down her cheeks. She looked wonderful to me, but I was surprised that he could see past her present appearance. When my mother came back, I couldn't get out of the room fast enough. I needed a break. And I needed to hear what else Sam knew.
"I swear, I don't know anything else about it," he insisted. "This guy called me and I went to get her."
"What did he say exactly?"
Sam rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "He said that I knew a friend of his. That she was coming in on a plane and needed somebody to meet her. He said to get there early because she'd need help getting to the car. And he had the accent, so I thought it must be Fiona. I wonder why they didn't call you."
He glanced at me, but I could only shrug. I thought I knew why they hadn't called me. I could tell that Sam felt as tired as I did; he and a lot of beer had been on a fishing boat all day. He was leaving to go home and take a nap. But, I noticed he stopped to look through the bedroom door for a long moment.
"She's going to be okay?" he asked.
I reassured him and my mother, who had appeared at his elbow. I hoped I sounded surer than I felt. I talked Mom into taking Tylenol and going to lie down. I took a pillow off the couch and went to take my shift. Fi was laying in the center of the bed, curled to her left. She lay with her right leg slightly straightened, because of the bulky bandage. It looked uncomfortable. The left hand was curled under her chin. Her lashes threw undulant shadows onto her cheeks.
"Fi, I'm going to move the bed. Just lie still."
I held her bag of saline on my shoulder with my chin. I pulled on the bed and moved it from along the south wall to the other side. I slid the hole at the top of the saline bag over the end of the curtain rod. I leaned over her and shifted her further to the far side. This would make it easier to take care of her wounds. I might have thought that she bore this with amazing fortitude, except that I knew she was still sedated. I sat down on the bed, stretching my legs out beside her. I scooted back until I could lean up against the wall. I propped her right knee on the pillow from the couch. She moaned a little when I lifted her leg, but didn't open her eyes. Brushing her hair back, I bent and pressed my lips to her forehead. It didn't feel hot.
Damn it, Fiona, what did you get yourself into?
I leaned my head back against the wall, and rested my arm along her back. The rhythm of her breathing, not quite so fast now, was reassuring to me. I dozed until I felt her rousing up.
"Need to pee," she slurred.
I guessed the intravenous fluids had finally caught up with her. I was glad I'd sent Sam back for the potty chair. I managed to get her on it without making her cry. But, she cursed me for the entire time it took to get the toilet paper from the bathroom. I came back to find my mother holding her upright. We got her back into bed.
"I can't sleep, Michael. Why don't you take a nap? You look terrible," Mom said..
I lay back on the couch and slept for five minutes at a time, repeatedly. Then, I must have gone into a deep sleep because I woke up to find Sam shaking me. He must have gotten home and found he couldn't sleep, either. I was shocked that I hadn't heard him come in. When you're a spy, sleeping light is a survival skill. Anything else could put you to sleep permanently.
"You'd better come, Mike. She's asking for you."
I stumbled over the edge of the carpet going into the bedroom. Fi was rubbing her face against the pillow under her head. She tried to sit up, but that made her yelp. She held her thigh above the bandage and rocked back and forth. She looked up at me, but I couldn't tell if she knew who I was.
"I'm right here, Fi."
"Michael, I . . ." Her voice sounded raspy, as though she hadn't used it in a while. She seemed to be having trouble breathing. "You have to find Sam."
That confused all of us. He was standing behind me.
"They took him," she said. She gripped my shirt to pull me down toward her. "I don't know who they are. They just grabbed him."
Sam and I looked at one another. We recognized this story. My mother hadn't heard the whole chronicle, thank god, but she looked less confused than Sam or I.
"I'm sorry, Michael," she said. "I had to give her a pain pill. I know you said she didn't like them, but she was moaning in her sleep. I couldn't stand it."
Sure, my hypochondriacal mother who tries one pill after another, searching for the magical cure, would be inclined to treat first and ask question later.
"You gave her one?" Sam had a guilty look on his face. "So did I, when you went to get the ice pack"
"She doesn't do well with drugs," I told them again. "She always said she could never be a drug addict. One dose and they'd throw her in the psych ward. The confinement would drive her crazy and they'd never let her out. She just goes around the bend when she takes drugs, especially opiates."
Her eyes were watching me, intently. I thought she was following the conversation. She frowned at me.
"Are you going to go find him?" she asked. "I'll be back later. I have to buy the Christmas tree."
Okay, it was going to be a long night. I gave my mother one of the Percocets and send her to bed. She went to her room and, this time, closed her door, firmly, against any further distressing noises.
"Take your turn on the couch, Sam. I'll sit with her."
I sat upright, leaning against the wall. She curled up by me, resting her forehead against my hip. I helped her get her arm comfortable. I gathered her hair at the neck and she lifted her head, so that I could put the scrunchy back on. She lay her injured leg over mine. Comfortable, she finally seemed to doze. But, it was only a short time before she stirred.
"Go find Sam. Go," she said. "Where . . . Oh, god. What happened to his leg?" She was staring past me at something in the corner of the room. She looked so frightened that, even though I knew that there was nothing there, I couldn't help glancing that way. No, no Sam. No leg, either. I tried to tell her that Sam was okay, but she wasn't convinced.
We repeated variations on that conversation about twenty times, averaging roughly every nine minutes. Sometimes, she told me about the car blowing up. Sometimes, she seemed to be talking to me on the phone. "They're coming," she would whisper, trying to crawl out of bed. I held her to my side and assured her that Sam was okay, that Nate and I had picked her up with hardly any trouble at all, that the guy who had hurt Sam wouldn't hurt him or anyone else ever again. She was always so glad.
But she was like someone with a concussion, who asks repeatedly what happened but never remembers the answer. In a few minutes, we would start all over again. Sometimes, she was worried about me getting into that 18 wheeler. Then, she would warn me about the little man who had tried to garrote me. She said strange things about dump trucks. There were several dire warnings about Carla. There was no danger from the last year that didn't come up. The most common concern, by far, was for Sam's leg. Whatever that meant. Finally, I slid down the wall to lay beside her. She tucked her face into my neck and used me as a prop for her arm and leg. She slept for almost an hour, exhausted by injuries, blood loss, and the drug reaction. It was such a relief to have her quiet that I fell into a doze. Then, my mother put her hand on my chest and I startled awake. That jerked Fi's leg and woke her. I seemed to be losing all the old skills of my previous line of work.
"Sam!" Fi said.
I thought it was starting all over. But, she had seen Sam in the doorway.
"I'm here, Fi. I'm okay," he said. "My leg is okay, too." He must have heard some of those discussions during the night. He slapped his leg a few times, to show her that it was sound.
"Oh, thank god!" She seemed genuinely relieved.
"What happened to his leg?" I wasn't clear what the concern had been.
"He was running but his leg was off and I was trying to help him." She seemed to realize partway through that something was wrong. "It must have been a dream."
"I'm glad," Sam said. And he seemed genuinely relieved, too.
Mom brought in some warm water and washed Fi's hands and face.
"I need a shower," our patient whined.
"When you wake up again," I promised. I leaned down and pressed my lips to her forehead. She gave me a look like she thought that I had lost my mind.
My mother was smiling. "He's just checking your temperature."
I had a moment's memory of Nate with chickenpox and my mom sitting with him in her bed. She could sleep upright, holding him on her shoulder. As caretaker, I brought her my specialty - mayonnaise sandwiches - several times. My dad took a flyer for the whole thing. He called back, a week later, and asked if the rug rat was better. Could he come home? He was drunk and broke when he got back. At least, he hadn't gone to Vegas and ending up losing his job. Again.
It was sweet of Mom to be so tender with Fi, who tried to smile back. It was a smile that broke my heart. I knew Fiona must be thinking of her mother, who had probably checked her little girl for fever in just that way. Fi seemed to withdraw into herself. She had the thousand-yard stare and the distant manner of the combat soldier. It appeared almost as a physical thing, as though she had retreated to a place where we could not reach her.
Back in the living room, Sam and I sat, numbly, across from one another. There were black circles under his eyes and the lines of his face were pronounced. He looked every bit of his age, and then some. His knees must have been under his chin while he slept on that couch..
"What now, Mike?"
I needed answers but the only person I could get them from was Fiona. What she needed was some uninterrupted sleep. I could have used some of that, myself. I shook my head, too tired to think. My mother came from the kitchen with two mugs of coffee, making me think that I might live, after all. She headed back into the bedroom with juice boxes.
"Hey," Sam said, "don't you have that meeting today? I thought you were making progress with the burn notice stuff. Lot of leads to follow after all the explosions."
That was an understatement. With Fiona in Miami, there had been a noticeable increase in pyrotechnics. And the police were all over that, too. A recent fatality from a front door wired to blow. Another dead body across town. The police thought there was a connection because they assumed the two explosions had to be related. But, I wasn't so sure. I had made friends with a guy on the force, who thought that I was an investigative reporter. He saw himself as Deep Throat and was feeding me tidbits. The second dead guy didn't strike me as a player. The explosion sounded more like an accident by people who weren't careful enough around things that have a tendency to go boom.
"Thanks for reminding me," I said. "I'll call him and reschedule. Right now, I need answers about what happened in Ireland, Sam."
"Well, she's quit hallucinating. That a step in the right direction," he said.
"The burn notice is going to have to wait."
Sam, to his credit, tried to control his look of surprise.
"Somebody . . . I want to know who. And why. And where they are right now!"
"Mike, calm down. This isn't about you. She's an independent woman who runs her own business. In all senses of the word "run". She doesn't tell you what she's doing. I always thought you didn't want to know the details. She lied about where she was going, in fact. You didn't have any reason to not believe her."
"But, I did. I almost went back in to talk to her that day. Because something seemed wrong. You know, off
He nodded. He'd stayed alive through the wilder parts of his career by listening to that little voice.
"I mean, does Fi seem like a Epcot, Sea World kind of person?" I asked.
"Blowing them up, maybe."
I tried not to smile. I really did. The world seemed a bleak place that morning; Fi could have been killed. But, that was funny. Shamu takes a flyer. I couldn't help enjoying the visual image. But, the fun only lasted for a moment.
"I should have been there, Sam."
"You didn't even know where she was." Sam's exasperation was making him loud. We both glanced, guiltily, in the direction of the bedroom door. "She's an experienced operative, good at what she does. One of the best shots I've ever seen. Better than me, even." He grinned at me. We both knew she could shoot rings around either one of us.
Back when Sam and Fi didn't get along, that had a way of being convenient for me. It was better if they didn't compare notes, for instance. But, since we had all been working together, they had developed a relationship independent of me. It made me long for the old days, sometimes. It was nice, though, to have two assets who could work so well together. Either one could jump right into whatever crazy idea the other one could come up with. It required a certain kind of improvisation. Sam could unexpectedly throw himself in front of a SUV to prevent a young girl from being flown off into the sex trade. And he could trust that Fiona would back him up, instantly, as his irate and greedy wife. Still, they made a show of not being fond of one another. It was like two old dogs who don't growl at each other any more, but just frown deeply if the other comes too close.
"I should have been there," I said again. "She always has my back. I send her out on jobs all the time. But, she never asks me for help. Well, that once, but she was asking me to help Campbell . . . . Why didn't she tell me, Sam?"
I sounded pathetic, even to myself. Spies work hard at mastering the art of inscrutability. The bland, unassuming, unthreatening worker-bee who gives off no signals because he knows nothing and cares even less. The blank look, the puzzled air, the intellectually shallow frown. These all have their place. But, right then, I knew I was incandescently transparent. When Sam's eyes met mine, he had the patient look of a man who knows when to keep silent.
"All work on the burn notice is on hold. Until further notice," I said. "I've got to go out." I didn't want to face that sympathetic look for one more second.
But, of course, Fi didn't get to sleep long. My errand was quick and I had only been back a few minutes when the doctor came by. Isn't that always the way it works? Whether you're in a community hospital, the field unit, or at home with the disgraced, unlicensed, ex-drug addict, it's the same. It's the exact same deal on the timing. If you go to sleep, the doctor will show up.
He seemed pleased. She hadn't had a temperature. He wasn't worried about the reaction to the pain meds; she was perfectly oriented by the time he saw her. He said Tylenol would be fine for the pain, if inadequate.
"She has a high pain tolerance," I told him.
He gave me an ironic look. "I bet. Well, your girlfriend is going to be okay. But, she should probably get in another line of work."
He probably thought she was a drug runner. I got another round of instructions. He set the schedule for another 24 hours of intravenous antibiotics. He produced the bottle of oral antibiotics, which was to start the next day. He took off all the bandages that we had so carefully arranged. Isn't that always the way, too? To his credit, he realized he didn't need to explain how wet-to-dry dressings helped with the debridement.
There was no redness or swelling. It looked like there wouldn't even be any scarring on her arm. There was only a small amount of exudate on the gauze on her leg. I could tell he was pleasantly surprised by this. Without warning, he clipped the stitch and pulled the Penrose drain from the leg wound. This earned him evil looks from everyone in the room.
"Just like a Band-Aid," he said. "Best to take them off fast."
Fi didn't look like she agreed.
In the hall, I gave him the rest of the money. He tucked it into his black bag and promised a phone call in the morning.
I had been to see Barry while she was asleep.
"Loan you money?" His doubtful look was not exactly flattering. We were at the cereal bar again; he was eating something with red and blue pellets in it
"What is that?" I asked.
"Strawberry and blueberry crunchola. Or maybe cherry and something. Prunes?"
We looked at one another. He had, briefly, an alarmed expression. It didn't surprise me that he couldn't tell by the taste
"Michael, people are trying to kill you. It's hard to get paid back, or even collect the vig, if the client is dead."
"Almost everybody you lend money to is at some risk of non-accidental death." It came out more sarcastic than I had meant it to.
He gave that little shrug of his. It meant: true but I don't dwell on it.
"Nothing personal. I like you." He laughed. "I must. Since I always seem to come through with whatever insane plan you've cooked up."
Time to pull out the big gun. I knew he had a crush on Fi. And who didn't? She had been to visit him once. After I threatened him, and it was just that one time, he wouldn't take my calls or Sam's. So, I sent her. She'd been the method of last resort. I gathered she'd been mildly violent with him, but he didn't seem to mind. In fact, he seemed more attracted to her than ever. He often asked me to bring her to Carlito's. I'll buy, he promised. That is not standard operating procedure for a money launderer. Take my word for it.
"It's Fiona. She's in trouble." I gave him a warning look. "Strictly confidential. I don't want people hunting her down."
His eyebrows went up and, then, down. The skin between them furrowed.
"It involved guns," I said, trying to explain without explaining.
"Doesn't it always with her?"
"Yes, but hardly ever guns that put holes in her."
That got his attention. He shot upright in his chair and almost spilled the last of the purplish milk left in his bowl. He lowered his voice and mouthed the words more than said them. "She's alive?"
I nodded. "But, we've had to call in a doctor, a very discrete doctor."
Barry understood, better than most people, that discrete is expensive. "How much do you need?"
Fi slept most of that day. So did the rest of us, in shifts. As long as we didn't move her leg too much or too fast, she managed to deal with the pain. We switched to ibuprofen, and that helped, too. That evening, I had carried her out to the couch for a change of scenery. She still looked pale, but she had stopped panting.
Sam had been home to take a long nap. When he came back, he brought his big juicer. He ran some beets and a few carrots through it. Looking at the blood-red juice, my mother wrinkled her nose. She was standing at the stove, slaving over a pot of chicken noodle soup, provided by another Campbell.
"Just beet juice," he said.
Fi knew exactly what it was and she had never liked it. She was starting to get a stubborn look
"Hydration. Iron. Nmm, nmm," I said.
Fi gave me an extremely dry look. It would be impossible to force her, but I wasn't above using bribery. I used to make a living doing that kind of thing.
"Drink it and you get a treat," I said, holding up a new box of cling wrap.
The chance for a shower produced a lot of cooperation. Afterwards, with help from Sam, I covered each bandage with a generous amount of cling. Then, I carefully taped the edges. My mother went in with her and helped wash her hair. After all that excitement, Fiona looked like a nap might be next on her busy schedule. I still needed answers, but they weren't on the agenda.
I propped pillows under her arm as she curled on her left side. Then a pillow under her right knee. She snuggled down under the comforter.
"You're being such a mother hen. It's endearing." She smiled, sleepily, up at me.
I sat on the side of the bed and stroked, slowly, from her neck to the small of her back. She was like a cat when she got sleepy. I don't like cats at all. They're hairy, little things and they want to sit on me. They know that I don't like them, but they do it anyway. I think they just enjoy pissing me off. I don't like cats. But, I have always liked a sleepy Fi.
"I'm sorry you didn't get to see your mother, Fi."
Purposely, she didn't look at me. "Didn't even make it out of the parking garage."
"I'm sorry I wasn't there with you."
She hunched her shoulders and frowned slightly. Obviously, she didn't want to talk about it. I leaned down and pressed my lips to her forehead. It must have been the right thing to do. She gave a big sigh; her features relaxed. I pushed tendrils of her hair back from her face. I went back to stroking the tension out of her.
"I wish I had been there," I said.
But, she was already asleep. It would be a treat to watch a sleeping Fi, but I had work to do. And, it didn't have anything to do with my burn notice. When I turned to the door, my mother stood there with tears in her eyes. I got her back to the living room, before she lost it. All the stress and worry of the last two days came flooding out. I sat on the couch with her and rubbed her back, too.
"Was she going to see her mother? Is her mom sick?" Trust my mother to assume the medical worst.
I didn't know. Her mother didn't like me, for some reason. And, she loved me, compared to what the Glenanne boys thought of me. I just shook my head.
"Her mother's in Ireland? Was Fiona moving back home?"
I shrugged and shook my head again. I just had no way to know.
"Michael! Will you talk to me and tell me what's going on. Sam said Fiona was in real trouble." She waved away my look. "Beyond the obvious, I mean," she added.
"I think Fiona tried to go home," I said. " She was close to her mother. I know she must miss her family. Maybe she was hoping the old troubles were in the past."
"Apparently, they weren't."
"Somebody must have been keeping an eye out for her." I was thinking out loud. "They might guess that she would want to see the family at some point."
Fi's mother was little in stature, like Fi. And twice as tough, as hard as it is to imagine that. You could tell that she must have been beautiful when she was young. But Ireland's Troubles were hers and it had been a hard life. Fi's father was dead. He was one reason why Fi was meticulous in her preparation of explosives. She understood lethality in the most personal way. She had three older brothers. They were all little and wiry. Make them mad and it was like being chased by rabid terriers. But, they were loyal to a fault and fiercely protective of their mother and sister. I wondered where they had been when Fi was getting shot up in that parking lot.
"I have to go to work, Ma. Can you deal with everything here?"
She gave me an outraged look. It was on Fi's behalf, I think
"I want to make sure nobody's looking for her here," I said. Okay, that was a lie. But it was a convincing lie.
I wasn't sure where to start. I headed over to Sam's; we needed a brainstorming session. As it turned out, I didn't have to look for answers. I just had to leave the house and the answers started looking for me. I had just turned left off of Mom's street when I spotted the car. The trick to losing a tail is to drive like an idiot: pass in a residential area, run red lights, signal right and turn left. You just keep acting stupid and wait for the other guy to make a mistake. This guy was good; he was a hell of a driver. I didn't want to end up in a swamp somewhere. So, I headed to the busiest place I could think of.....a Wal-Mart parking lot. I parked a few spaces away from the last car in the row which faced the most visible intersection. He pulled in right beside me, facing the opposite direction. He held his hands up, empty, to show me that he just wanted to talk. I opened my door and motioned him out of his car. As he got out, he lifted his jacket. I could see he had no weapon.
"So, talk," I said. "You've got 90 seconds to convince me that I shouldn't just go about my business.
"I've come about herself," he said "I have some friends who want to know that she's okay." He started out emphasizing the brogue and ended up slipping into standard Midwestern English which would be at home on any cable television news program. I wondered if he was the guy who had called Sam.
"How do I know you're one of the good guys, since the good guys and bad guys sound alike?"
He was grinning and shaking his head. "When she was eleven and I was nine, she beat the hell out of me for trying to kiss her behind St. Mathew's." He pointed out the scar over his right eye. It seemed to be a pleasant memory.
That certainly sounded plausible, if not definitive. I thought about Barry. "She got right to the edge of the cliff." I said, feeling a little shiver in my spine. "Both flesh wounds, but she lost a lot of blood. There's still the risk of infection or some complication. But, she's going to be fine. We're taking good care of her. I know she'd like it if you could get word home."
This time he nodded. "A lot of people are worried. They'll be glad to hear she has someone to take care of her. Though, maybe not so much that it's you." He gave me a look like he might have heard some things about me. Not nice things, judging from his expression.
"She's at my Mom's house."
"That should help," he said.
He turned back to his car, but paused as if debating with himself. "I'm sure that her mother will appreciate what you're doing for her," he said, finally. He pushed his sunglasses down off his head.
"Wait a minute. It's my turn. I want to know what happened."
He shook his head. "I'm not here to give out information. Just to get news for home."
"I need to know anything that will help me keep her safe," I said.
He looked over the top of his glasses, to make sure I understood the provisional nature of his cooperation. "I heard that she thought it would be safe if it was just a personal visit. She was out in the parking lot of the airport . . ." He flipped his hand outward, palm up.
"How did they know she was coming? What's her connection with them?"
"You're wasting my time," he said. "She'd had dealing with them in the past."
Now, I was the one looking over the top of my sunglasses. "I'd guessed that much."
"Not your problem," he pointed out.
"It had better be somebody's problem." I couldn't make it clearer than that. I watched him get back in his Saturn and drive away. Somebody, maybe me, needed to make sure these guys were very sorry.
Sam answered his phone on the first ring. "Mike? Is everything okay?"
"She's better. I need you to find somebody for me. You'll have to tail him from work. Find out what restaurant or bar he lights in and call me."
"I was just heading to your mom's to see if she needed anything."
"This first, Sam."
"Is it the burn notice, again?
"No. You'll enjoy this. It's a nice assignment. He likes peach mojitos, too."
"My kinda guy." Sam sounded downright enthusiastic.
I could see him though the window of the Thai restaurant. He was sitting at one of the back tables. He was with a redhead, this time. He was surprised to see me, to say the least.
"Oh, I so hoped I would never see you again," he said.
"What do you want? I thought the last favor I did for you was the last favor. Ever." He wasn't trying very hard to reciprocate the friendliness.
"I need some advice. Honey, could you powder your nose or your belly button ring or something?"
"No, stay here." He waved her back into her seat. "I'll walk you back to your car," he said to me.
He didn't look as happy to see me as I had hoped. I had thought we got along pretty well during our time together. Considering that I was blackmailing him. In a funny way, we seemed alike. I used to be in his line of work. We enjoyed each other's sense of humor. We took turns buying lunch, even.
"I need a name of somebody who can help me," I said.
He had trouble swallowing the story I told him. It was all lies, but he didn't have to act like he didn't believe me.
"You do know that I'm from the other side of the world from there, right?"
"I don't think you know somebody from that area," I said. "I do think you know somebody who knows somebody who can get in touch with somebody for me."
"And why would I do this for you?" He was incredulous. "What do I get out of it?"
"Lunch? Dinner? A marker you can call on any time."
He was amused. "What can you do for me?"
What the hell. My country had betrayed me - abandoned me, left me in the worst of situations. Somebody in my own government may have had me burned, Philip Cowan's opinion notwithstanding. After that, somebody - again in my own government - tried to kill me. Did I owe them more than I owed Fiona?
"Information." Surely, I could find out something for him
"Have you been in my office lately?" he asked.
"No," I admitted.
"I know you haven't. He frowned at me. "You're no traitor, Michael. You're a boy scout."
"It's hitting close to home this time."
He cocked his head sideways, regarding me like a specimen in a biology lab. "Family? Ah, a woman." He didn't say this last like it was a question.
Let him think whatever he wants, I thought. It doesn't matter.
"How far would you be willing to go, Michael?"
"Whatever you need. Something you can't do through regular channels. Something you don't want to be involved in yourself."
That covered a lot of frightening ground. The chance for lingering regrets might worry me, but it wasn't enough to stop me. He didn't like me well enough for this kind of favor, without some major inducement. Scary but necessary is not an uncommon assessment in the spy business. He got an abstracted look. He had a pen but no paper. I managed to find a pizza receipt in my pocket.
"Get a prepaid cell, call this number, and wait for a return call. The next time we make contact, Michael, it had better be my idea." He started inside, but turned back. "And don't forget to stop off and pay my bill."
I called Barry from the car.
"I need you to send some money to somebody," I said. "Untraceable. It needs to be many steps removed from me. And several more from you."
" You're getting in pretty deep here, Michael."
"I'll let you know the account number," I said as I pulled up in front of the house. At home, we all had our days and nights mixed up. Sam was grateful to be relieved. I wasn't sure whether he was leaving to sleep or get drunk.
"She's been a bear," he whined. "I need something stronger than beer, a lot stronger."
"She feels better," my mother put in. "It reminds me of when you kids were little. When you were sick, you just laid around. When you started throwing fits, I knew you were better."
Fi came hobbling in, weaving from doorway to chair to wall to couch. She looked cranky, a dangerous thing.
"I brought you some yogurt," I said, hoping it sounded enticing. She frowned.
I walked Sam out to his car. "How much money can you come up with?"
"Why?" The apprehensive look on his face was a match for Barry's worried tone of voice.
"I'm sending a message."
He gave a resigned sigh; he knew me too well. I wasn't going to turn back from this. "Well, I've got some work for us. I didn't mention it because you've been so hot on the people behind Carla. This job could be lucrative. Very. A little dodgy." He waggled his hand from side to side, meaning that it was more than just a little dodgy. "And it's time-consuming. Will you have time next week to start this?"
"Next week will be fine. Can you get us an advance?"
"If I tell him it's for expenses, maybe. Don't you want to know what the job is, Mikey?"
"It doesn't matter, Sam. Set it up. Get the money to Barry. Tell him I'll call him." Now, I just needed an account number to wire the money to.
Going back in, I felt like the Christian being thrown to the lions. I met Mom going the other way. "Don't give me that look. I'm going to buy groceries," she said. "It's time for her antibiotics and dressing change."
Fi was on the couch with a yogurt, plain, and was watching Showbiz Tonight. She glowered at me when I sat down across from her. I decided to wait on the dressing change. We watched clips of Jennifer while a twenty-something blond discussed what Jen said about Angelina or, maybe, it was what Angelina said about Jen. We saw an piece on Obama's daughters' dog. I'm pretty good at sleeping with my eyes open, but Fiona is better at catching me at it. Rapid-fired pillows off the couch woke me.
"Wha?" The last thing I remembered was K-Fed.
I was surprised that she wanted to change her dressings; it hadn't been her favorite activity. I understood, when we got them off. She was scratching all around the wound, trying not to get too close to the ragged edges. There's a line of demarcation: closer than that, there's more pain than pleasure. I let her have at it. So, she was in a better and less itchy mood by the time we'd used the peroxide and ointment. I was bending over her leg, looking at the wound underneath. She has shapely legs. I have to admit that the bullet holes barely got in the way of my appreciation. The anterior gash looked like it might scar, though. She has some cream that she swears is magic. She's used it on me a few times. One of those times, she was responsible for the injury in the first place. The concoction must work because her skin is almost flawless.
"Are you through groping my leg, Michael?"
I looked up at her. She was smiling at me. Her index finger ruffled the hair at the back of my neck.
"You've been a good friend. I don't know how I can repay you," she said.
"You don't owe me for anything, Fi."
" No. I do. You don't know what's going to happen now. If they've left you on your own, you may need everything you can get."
"Don't worry about it. I'll be a slave driver when you get up and around." I tried to grin at her, but the weight of my guilt sobered me. "Anyway, I should have done things differently. I knew something was off but . . . "
She shook her head, ruefully. "I could tell you did. What was it? You didn't believe the tourist cover?"
"If you'd told me, Fi, I'd have gone."
She gave me a amused glance. "You can't even get to Orlando. How do you think you could get out of the country?"
Since that might very well be true, I didn't deny it. "I could have sent Sam."
She rolled her eyes at me. "Not worth the risk, Michael."
I didn't point out that she could have used some backup. "What happened?" I asked.
"I'm not sure. Nobody knew I was coming. My papers were perfect. I came through customs without a hitch. I was to meet a friend in the car park. But, these two guys got in the elevator with me and blocked me from getting out."
"Did you know them?"
She shook her head. "Never seen them before. One of them looked about seven feet tall. The other man, one of his ears was burned off. I was lucky. It was that close, Michael. Somebody got on at the next level. I just shoved past and took off. I got the door open to the stairwell but the big one grabbed my jacket."
Her voice went shaky. I was careful not to show any reaction. She didn't need my fears added to her own. I sat as still as possible, with a politely inquiring expression. She didn't look at me. That was fine. On the other hand, I never wanted to stop looking at her. I had a memory, a flash of sitting with her on the floor in front of my sink. She'd reached up to touch the abrasion on my neck, souvenir of an almost-lethal encounter. You could have died, she'd said. Don't I get to worry about you, she asked. I finally, finally understood.
"I shoved backward into him," she continued, "instead of pulling away. It gave me just enough room to stomp on his foot. When he stumbled back, I got a good knee-to-the-groin move in. He fell over; he was making these little squeaking noises." She stopped to remember the moment fondly. "He was so big, he blocked the door. The other guy tripped and fell on top of him." She had regained her composure.
"It's hard to believe they were professionals," she said suddenly. "It was like - "
"Two of the three stooges?" I suggested.
"Of course, if they were professionals, I'd be dead." There, she had said it. It was better, in the long run, to face it. The next step was to realize that it wasn't just luck that had gotten her out of the situation.
"I grew wings getting down those steps, but they got several shots off. My friend was waiting on the third level. He got the bleeding stopped, packed the wound, and used his phone to book a flight back. At least, some good comes out of this recession. There was a seat on the next plane. My leg did fine until I went to the loo and the clot just pulled loose. I bound it up with paper towels and Kotex. After that, I was just trying to keep the blood from pooling on the floor."
"And why were those guys taking these chances?" I asked.
She shrugged. "There were some people mad at me when I left," she admitted. "That's why I left. But, I've been gone a long time, Michael. You wouldn't think they'd be watching for me after all this time."
Somebody sure was. We sat in glum silence.
"I just wanted to visit. It wasn't a business trip at all."
She tried to pretend she was rubbing something out of the corner of her eye. I can't stand it when she's sad. I've been the cause of it more than once. But, that doesn't make it any easier to watch.
"I think some of your friends must have heard what happened," I said.
"Friends? Are you sure? That they're friends?" She looked alarmed.
"You clobbered him when he tried to kiss you in the churchyard."
"Umm. Narrows it down some."
"He showed me the scar. It went from right above his right eye to down past the corner, sort of a backwards z."
"Oh," she smiled. "You met him."
"I sent word home that you were okay. They were worried."
"Thank you, Michael." She put her good arm around my neck and pulled me forward until my forehead rested against hers. "Thank you."
I wrapped one arm loosely around her and tucked her head under my chin. It was the first truly calm moment we'd had since this had all started. We stayed like that. Her breathing was soft and slow and ruffled the collar of my shirt. But, I couldn't give up my fixation. Why hadn't she told me? I was glad when the new phone rang because I didn't want to think about that anymore.
"Got to take this," I said.
"Of course you do." She let go of me. Actually, she gave me a little shove away from her.
I hid in the garage, in case my mother came back. It's nice to know bad people who can put you in touch with other bad people. Bad people have their uses. I heard my mother putting groceries away. But, I called Barry with the number before I went back in. Sam had already been there with the money, enough for the first payment. I felt better, once it was all arranged. It wasn't so hard to join the dark side, after all.
I went back in to Fi, but she was asleep. Before, I had wanted to ask her something. But, I was afraid of the answer. I felt relieved by the reprieve.
It turns out that the forces of evil grind just as exceedingly slow as the wheels of justice. Fi's wounds were healing nicely; the magic cream was working its miracles; she was complaining about rehab to anyone who would listen. Sam and I did the work. It was a good thing that I didn't know what it entailed beforehand because it's hard to believe I would have taken it otherwise. It was long and tedious. Then it was tedious, but in a deadly way. The less said about the legalities of it, the better. It worked out all right. We made some money. All of mine and part of Sam's went for the rest of the payment. Barry was relieved when our business was at an end. I hadn't heard from Waseem, but I knew that bill would come due someday.
I didn't get many details about the job. I got in the car one day and the pictures were just laying on top of the seat. It was nauseatingly documented. I had no doubts that these were the right guys. They got exactly what they deserved.
The next day, my friend in the Saturn fell in behind me. The Wal-Mart parking lot was insanely busy. We didn't get out this time, but just rolled our windows down.
"Michael," he said in a reproving tone. "I appreciate you wanting revenge. But, really, this was unnecessarily messy. Not to mention, internationally confusing."
"The messier the better, I always say. Then, everybody understands the message."
When he spoke again, he let an artic chill into his voice. "This is the end of your part in this. It's over. Do you understand?" He put the car in gear, but waited for a response..
"I'm done," I said. I hadn't felt so cheerful in weeks.
It must have been my day to be reprimanded. The call came in over a phone that I was still forwarding to a throwaway. It was supposed to be for emergencies only.
"Michael, you've been a very bad boy. Talk about going off the reservation. Wow!"
"My private life is nobody's business," I said.
"What makes you think you get a private life?" he asked. "I can totally understand; really, I can. She is very beautiful. I got a brief look once. All too brief. Do you remember? You two have such a complicated relationship." He was, unsuccessfully and deliberately so, trying to swallow his laughter.
I pressed my lips together tightly and trapped them between my teeth. The two of us had been enemies and, then, not-enemies. Collaborators, brought together by a common goal, is the best way to put it. I'd saved his life. And given him his file back You'd think that would earn me some consideration. But, he was still FBI. If he ever needed to give me up to get out from under, then he would. That's the way it is when you're a spy, and when you're a spy-hunter, too. I didn't want to provoke him.
"I have to confess that I find your loyalty very touching, Michael," he went on. "Is it the guilt? About how you've treated her? Is that the real reason?" He paused. He was listening for the sound of my head exploding, I guessed. "I understand your situation has changed. You need to start protecting yourself."
"I'm going to protect the people I care about." It came out low-voiced, but all the frustration and anger from the last year was in there. I was drawing the line here.
"Any more tricks like this one and your survival will be very much up in the air," he said. "I can't believe you didn't break every bone in your body when you jumped out of that 'copter."
"They can bring it on," I said. But, he had already hung up.
Sam and I had arranged a little surprise for Fiona. I could hear him laughing as he came up the steps.
"Oh, Mike. I wish you could have been there."
"Everything went okay?"
"I had a little trouble making her get in the trunk for the last fifty miles," he said.
I looked him over. He didn't seem to be bleeding or missing any limbs.
"You made her get in the trunk?"
"Hey, we were being all covert op about this. So, yeah. My buddy Ted had told his neighbors that I was going to be there while he was out of town. But, I didn't want anybody to see Fi."
I was still struck by the image. "She got in the trunk? Willingly?"
"Well, I had to shift the sound system to just the front speakers. And give her all my peanut butter crackers. And promise her she could shoot me if she didn't like the surprise." He shifted in his chair, not looking at me. He examined the label on his beer bottle, peeling off the corner.
"Okay, okay. I promised her she could shoot you, too"
"I hope she liked her surprise, then." I was laughing.
"Oh, yeah!" His face lit up and he waggled his eyebrows. "I pulled in the garage before I opened the trunk and let her out. When the door from the kitchen opened, it was a tense moment. Then . . . yeah. She liked the surprise. It was intense. When I picked them up at the airport, they just seemed normal. You know? Normal . . . leprechauns. Then, when they all saw one another, there were these little bitty women jumping up and down. Bloodcurdling screams. Seriously, Mike, I was scared."
"Everything went okay on the other end?"
"Yep. It seems the two sisters look enough alike to pass for one another. Fi's cousin, the aunt's daughter, was coming back, anyway. She lives in Atlanta. So, it just looked like she was bringing her Mom for a vacation. The aunt's gone to visit her school friend in some godforsaken place. Every body thinks it was the other one who went."
"Smooth is smooth, baby," I said.
"And money can get you anything," he said. He went to get us both another beer out of the frig.
"And worth every penny."
He nodded. "I just wanted to get back in the car and get out of there. But Fi's mom had to give me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Her cousin shook my hand about ten times. Have you seen her cousin? She's a real looker, Mike."
"Wow. Her mother's never hugged me."
"Yeah, I decided not to mention your name. I wasn't getting a good vibe."
"I think she got over being upset about the trunk." He grinned again.
"Hey, I was glad to do it. I just wish you could have been there. You're the one who deserved the credit."
"It's better that I don't take credit for anything to do with any of this."
The fervent tone must have alerted him. He gave me a long, thoughtful look. But, he didn't ask.
Two weeks later, Fi showed up at Mom's house before the poker game. I looked out the front window and saw her. "What's Fi doing, Ma?"
"Well, Michael, it looks like she's washing my car." She gave me an exasperated look, on her way to get chips out of the cabinet. "She feels like she owes me something," she said. "Which she doesn't. But, it makes her feel better to do me a favor."
I stood there, watching Fi rinse off the soap, and had another flash of memory. This kind of thing had been happening to me, lately. They were just quick glimpses of the past. But, I would stop what I was doing, arrested by a vision that seemed more real than what was happening around me.
A few months before, Nate and I had stood looking out a window in this house Fiona was mowing the small front yard. The kid who usually did it hadn't shown and it was poker night. Fi was wearing a midriff-baring halter with a pair of diminutive denim shorts. She was tan and, though she isn't tall, she has lean lines. Just watching the muscles bunch under the skin of her leg gave me ideas I didn't want to have.
When I glanced over at Nate, he seemed to be having similar thoughts.
He jumped. He flapped his hands in a don't-blame-me way.
"Hey, I'm just looking. I mean, I like what me and Katya have. I'm not gonna mess that up." He turned back and motioned out the window. "But, I'd have to be dead not to notice that."
The mower had died. Fiona pulled the starter in one long, smooth motion. The engine began to chug. Her arms are wonderful, the biceps muscled enough to make you realize how strong she must be. It was hard to blame Nate for having what was, after all, a normal human reaction.
My mother passed through the room and saw us. She said, "You two are such pigs."
Fi came in from outside, her shoes squishing. Her clothes were wet. She was still limping a bit.
"Have a good trip?" I asked.
She nearly knocked me down. She threw her arms around my chest and squeezed. That must have been why it was hard to breathe.
"It was wonderful!" She had her cheek pressed against my chest.
"I'm glad, Fi. You deserved that."
"Thank you, Michael. You don't know how much it meant, to both of us."
"It was the least I could do," I said.
"You've developed such a guilt complex. It isn't like you" She was teasing me, trying to lighten the moment.
I wasn't exactly feeling in high spirits. "You couldn't even tell me what was going on. You've always stood up with me, Fi. I should have had your back."
"Michael," she chided, "this was my decision. Not a good one, as it turns out. But, you don't have anything to feel bad about."
I pulled back and she let me go. I walked over to the window, looking out. She went to the frig and got us both a yogurt.
"Were you coming back?"
She went still. I took a deep breath and turned around. I wanted to see the look in her eyes when she answered that.
"Yes, Michael. I wasn't going to . . . I would have said good-bye."
Neither one of us mentioned that I hadn't done that in Dublin. There was a quiet pause while we both tried not to think about things. She came to me, then. She laid her head on my chest again, though she didn't put her arms around me.
"I had a hard time accepting the situation at first. I thought Miami would be our second chance. Our destiny." She said this last self-mockingly. "But, it wasn't what you wanted."
"It wasn't a matter of what I wanted or didn't want, Fi. I'll probably always want you."
"Tears under the bridge," she said, with finality. "In the end, I had to respect your decision. We can't be in a romantic relationship. But we can be . . ." She was having trouble saying "friends." "I'll help you with your thing, and you can help me. But, the chance for the other . . ."
There was a little flutter in my chest, a tiny spasm of my bowels. My breath felt thick in my lungs. For a moment, black spots floated in front of my eyes. She had no idea how things had changed for me.
She leaned back and, finally, looked up at me. "I'll always care about you, Michael. That will never change." She held on to my arm for balance while she pulled her wet shoes off. She turned away, but then looked back at me over her shoulder. "I imagine that we'll need to blow off steam every once in a while, though."
I couldn't see her face as she left the room but I knew she was smiling.
It is funny how some events in your life feel like they went on forever. This with Fi lasted less than a week before we knew that she'd be okay. When I look back at it, though, it takes on a significance that can't be explained by just a few days of terror. I remember it all, in more detail than I wish. More than once, I've had dreams of Sam calling me. Someone is hurt. It's most often someone I don't even know. Once, it was Leonid Brezhnev. What'd with that?
She could have been lying in a morgue in Ireland. How long would it have been before we knew what happened? Those thoughts had festered, all that first night. We would have been searching Orlando. I would have been holding Campbell upside down out a thirty-story window. Juliet - she would have found no mercy. If I could have hunted down the man in the helicopter, he would have been spared nothing. And, all the time, the woman that was as much a part of me as the marrow in my bones would have been lying dead. In a morgue. In another country. And I wouldn't even have known it.
At the same time, it feels like it was so long ago. Life has gone on. My mother is more likely to call Fiona, just to check on her. Sam and Fi are acting like 4-year-old's and having a great time playing practical jokes on one another. She keeps coming up with different elaborate and improbable plans for getting him in a trunk. I am back working on the burn notice question. I'm broke. I've been doing some carpentry work on the loft and it is apparently never going to be done. The security upgrade on everybody's residence is coming along.
But, things will never be the same for me. I've experienced the fear of losing her forever. I've held her against me, just to comfort her. I've forsworn some of my most sacred vows. I have an obligation that will have to be met someday, regardless of the cost. I've done it without a second thought and with no regrets. And, it was all worth it. I've chosen, for now, not to burden her with my romantic change of heart. She feels at peace with where we are. I won't put that at risk. We can't go back. But, someday, we may can go forward.
She puts our dishes in the sink; there is no trace of tuna tahini left on mine. I have no idea what she is referring to.
"You don't know what I'm talking about, do you?"
With a hangdog look, I pretend to feel humiliated by my ignorance. She gives me an exaggerated roll of her eyes.
"BFF. Best Friends Forever." She shakes her head. "You are so culturally retarded."
"Hey, I haven't had access to the teen magazines for a couple of decades."
She is laughing now. The sun shines through the window. As she turns back toward me, her skin picks up the reflection from the yellow sundress she is wearing. I have a sudden sense-memory of lying with her in the reflections from a fireplace. Sometime, somewhere in Ireland. I feel the smoothness of her shoulder. I breath in the scent of her shampoo after our shower. I can taste the molten heat of her mouth. I burn to ashes in that memory.
I blink. She is flapping her napkin in my face. I wonder if I look as empty as I feel.
"Do you want to go to the Go-Kart track or not?"
I blink again and clear my throat. "Hell, yes," I say.
The high school crowd all love it when Fi shows up. There are some intense rivalries and they don't all have to do with driving. It's a good thing that teen-aged boys have good reflexes. And, that go-karts don't go a hundred miles an hour.
"They better have their A-game on tonight." She has a calculating look in her eye. Then, she wrinkles her nose at me and goes to get her driving gloves. .
BFF. Oh, yes. Forever.