AN: I know I'm supposed to be working on Ten Stages, but this has been hanging around in the back of my mind for a while. Also, it was my birthday this week and I'm celebrating with a oneshot.
Based on a line from The Born Identity - "I get holding yourself apart from the world. I do. I once went six whole days without talking to a single human being. I wasn't even trying. It just happened. Best six days of my life."
Many thanks to Roar for her suggestions and to R J Lupin's Kat for spotting a few errors, now corrected.
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Mary lazily turned the page of the newspaper she had found abandoned on the seat next to her. The bar was quiet in the late afternoon on a Tuesday. Quiet enough that the staff didn't care that she'd been taking up a table for four for the last three hours.
She searched the want ads, looking for anything she wanted to do. Anything that she was qualified to do. As the week dragged on and rent day neared, she would have settled for anything.
She had fallen into a pattern easily since she had lost her job. She slept late in the morning, before emerging into the bright but cold New Jersey light. She'd make her way to this bar each day and take advantage of the free refills on the one coffee she'd order. The bar staff had stopped asking her if she wanted food after the first few days. They didn't even bother to ask her when she wanted a top-off now.
Mary had enjoyed the solitude for the first few days. She was grateful that no one had asked her about her latest failure. She had dodged the calls from her family for the same reason. Well, that and she just could afford to be dragged in to their latest drama. Her meagre savings had gone to bail Brandi out the last time she got caught in a car that wasn't hers. Financially and emotionally she couldn't deal with her family. The lack of contact with them had been a respite, as had the blithe disregard of the bar staff.
In fact, she hadn't noticed for the first couple of days. Then, as enlightenment dawned on what she assumed was day three of not talking to anyone, it had become a challenge – how long could she go without uttering a word to anyone? She set herself rules. She wouldn't hide in her apartment to avoid people. She wouldn't be rude, at least no more than she normally would, and giving people the silent treatment wasn't her style anyway. No, she was known for her mouth and her inability to control it.
That was what had got her fired. Mouthing off to the pit boss at the casino hadn't been her finest hour but she was right and he knew it. He was just too stubborn to back down and so was she. So she and the casino had parted ways. Loudly. She was pretty sure half the Boardwalk had heard her call him 'Pervis' and they hadn't even been her breasts he'd been staring at.
The shy girl she'd been asked to show the ropes to had thanked her quietly as Mary cleared out her locker, and Mary had told her she'd have to get tougher if she wanted to survive. Not that she expected her advice to be heeded, if the girl couldn't even tell their sleazy boss to get stuffed, there was no way she'd stand up to some of the customers. That was the last meaningful conversation she recalled having, unless you counted flipping off the pit boss on the way out. That had been meaningful, but she wasn't sure it counted as conversation. Likewise, the few sentences she'd exchanged with the staff of the bar she now sat in didn't count as meaningful and even that had dwindled to nothing.
By her best count, she was now on her seventh day without a sound passing her lips. And it was starting to piss Mary off. Was her life really so pathetic that no one had noticed that she hadn't spoken for six days? Did no one in her life care? She could answer that question all too easily – there was no one in her life to care.
She was beginning to wonder just what she was trying to prove to herself, to the world, when her silent contemplations were interrupted but the sound of laughter coming from the street outside. She grimaced as a group of men tumbled into the bar, laughing and joking and generally disrupting the peace she had been cursing moments before.
Stag party, she decided and returned to her paper. There was still nothing to be found, no matter how many times she looked at the page. She reached for her coffee cup only to find it empty. She cursed under her breath and looked to the bar where several members of the stag party were chatting noisily while they waited for the staff to finish screwing or whatever it was they were doing in the kitchen.
Mary moved to the bar, planning on getting served before the group could commandeer the two regular staff members. She glanced over at the stag party, grateful they seemed to be at the beginning of their evening out and more or less sober. Maybe she wouldn't be hit on. Or, at least, maybe they would listen when she told them to get lost.
As she watched them, she tried to work out who the unlucky man was. There were two candidates. One was standing at the other end of the bar, animatedly telling a story while the other was holding court at the table, directing the organisation of chairs. She named then Dimwit 1 and Dimwit 2. From the way Dimwit 2 was ordering people about, he was obviously used to being in charge and by the way they were rearranging the tables and chairs, they were obviously planning to stay a while. Maybe another cup of coffee wasn't a good idea, maybe she should just go. But it was cold outside, her apartment wasn't much better and if she chose another bar, she'd have to pay for the coffee. She sighed resignedly.
That drew the attention of the nearest member of the group. The one Mary had overlooked in favour of the more boisterous members. He studied the woman next to him and inwardly cringed when he heard one of his group swear. That was no way to act in front of a lady in his opinion, not that she seemed to notice. She looked far too lost in her own thoughts and he noticed a sadness in her demeanour.
Noticing the empty coffee cup in her hand, he pushed himself up on the bar and tried to peer through the gap in the double doors that led to the kitchen in the hope of attracting the staff's attention. As he lowered himself back down, he smiled at Mary and said, "What can they be doing in there?"
Mary ignored the innuendo in his voice, even though she had made the same assumption. She stared resolutely at the rows of bottles lined up behind the bar.
"Hey, guys," the man called to his friends at the bar, "Why don't you go sit down, I've got this."
Dimwit 1 looked over, noticed Mary and couldn't help get a dig in at his little brother in the hope she would notice him. "You sure you can remember it all?"
"Ten beers, right? I think I can manage."
Mary looked up at the tension in his voice. She studied him in the mirrored glass behind the shelves. He was tall and dressed in black. He was about her age and not bad looking. But there was friction there, between him and Dimwit 1. She would have to watch that once the beer started flowing and make sure she was out of range before one of them started throwing punches. She turned so she could keep one eye on Dimwit 1 and measure up the guy beside her more accurately. She had been involved with gambling and gamblers too long not to lay odds on the outcome of a fight. As her eyes raked over the tall form next to her, she noticed the cowboy boots he was wearing.
A real Johnny Cash wannabe, she thought with a smile that had no visible symptoms and turned back to studying him in the mirror behind the shelf. Six-to-one against, she decided.
Dimwit 1 was oblivious to Mary's internal musing, he was studying his brother just as intently though. Recognising the waxing tension and the waning patience, he nodded.
"Sure thing," he said, then called to the others at the bar, "Hey, DM's getting this round, let's grab a table before Jono has the seating plan laminated."
The guys laughed and Dimwit 2 shot Dimwit 1 a long suffering glare.
"Thanks, DM," a couple of the guys called as they moved away from the bar.
Mary was still watching the Johnny Cash Wannabe in the glass so she saw him flinch slightly at the words.
He caught her eye in the mirror and said quietly, "My name's not actually DM."
Mary was almost tempted to ask what DM stood for, when the door to the kitchen opened and the waitress came out. She took one look at the crowd and disappeared back into the kitchen.
There was a moment of puzzled silence as they both tried to work out why she had left.
"You know, there's such a word as dishevelled and dishevelment, and if the English language followed just one set of rules, the pre-fix dis would imply there also exists a state of shevelment in which one was shevelled," he glanced over at Mary as he spoke. He noticed her confused expression and decided he was already in too deep and had to plough on through to the other side to come out of this one with any pride left in place.
"Of course, dishevelled comes from Old French, being related as it is to chevel, French for hair, in it's original meaning of having hair uncovered or hanging lose. But if there was a state of shevelment, I would say that she was looking particularly shevelled for someone suspected of having a quickie out the back."
Mary stared at him with her mouth open, not knowing what to make of someone who could connect the origin of the word dishevelled and the idea of a quickie in the same thought process.
The waitress came bustling back, looking flustered but no less shevelled.
"What can I get you?" she asked the Johnny Cash Wannabe.
He gestured to Mary and said, "Ladies first."
The waitress turned to Mary and looked at her empty coffee cup with contempt.
"I'll go put another pot on," she sighed and disappeared once again.
"Don't I get a 'Thank you'?" the Johnny Cash Wannabe asked. "I just saved you a long and tedious wait while I placed my long and complicated order. Is politeness truly dead?"
"Thanks," Mary muttered gruffly.
Once her barrier of silence was broken, she felt compelled to at least attempt a conversation. But she was out of practise and the silence dragged painfully as she tried to think of something to say. Raucous laughter from across the room gave her the inspiration she needed.
"So, who's the unlucky guy?"
"Who's freedom is about to be cut short? Who's about to be shackled forever to one woman? Who's swapping the rest of his life for a promise of regular sex that will never be fulfilled?" She saw only confusion on the guy's face. "Who's getting married, Numbnuts?"
"No one. This isn't a stag party," he clarified. "It's my send off. I've got a new job."
"Oh." Mary was contrite for about half a second before curiosity got in the way at the mention of a job opening. "What do you do?"
"US Marshal," he said shifting so she could see the badge at his hip.
"And you're leaving the force?" Mary asked, wondering why anyone would give up a steady, government-backed paycheck.
"The service," he corrected unthinkingly, " and no. Just transferring to another department."
"Oh," Mary said again and stared over her shoulder at the group of his friends. She scoffed as she turned back to the bar.
"What?" he asked.
"Nothing." She paused for a moment. "I was just thinking that no one threw me a going away party when I left my last job." Although they might have had one when I'd left, she added silently.
Marshall missed the wistfulness in her voice. "Yeah, well, most of them are only here for the free beer and because my brother told them to come."
"Which one's your brother?" Mary asked.
Marshall pointed at Dimwit 1, "That's David, he's two years younger than me, and that's Jono, he's the eldest," he said pointing to Dimwit 2.
"They're marshals too?"
"Yeah, a whole family of marshals." There was a hint of bitterness in his voice.
"Must be an easy branch of law enforcement to get into, if they let Dimwits 1 and 2 in."
Marshall snorted his amusement, his eyes twinkling as he forestalled her next insult, "Yeah, and they've just given me a promotion, so I guess it is."
Mary half smiled at him.
"Where the hell is this waitress?" she asked. "Is she growing my goddamn coffee beans or what?"
"You know, from a chemical stand point, coffee is one of the most complex beverages we consume. Over 700 compounds are produced during the roasting process, although the main one is carbon dioxide. Over three gallons of carbon dioxide are produced for every two pounds of bean roasted and the CO2 build up in each coffee bean..."
Mary glared and he shut up.
The waitress returned from trying to sober the cook up and poured Mary another cup of coffee without a word. She turned to Marshall and looked at him expectantly, silently praying that he and his friends just wanted drinks until Brian, the other staff member, had forced some more coffee down the cook's throat.
"Nine beers and cranberry juice, please," he said.
"I thought it was ten beers?" Mary said.
Marshall smiled a mischievous smile at her, "It is. But wait for it..."
Just then one of the group shouted across the room. "Hey, DM, what's taking so long? I'm dying of thirst here."
"And we have a winner for my own personal version of Russian Roulette," Marshall muttered so that only Mary could hear. He turned to the group and yelled, "What? Keep your pants on. I'm getting it."
The bar was empty other than Mary and the group, so the response that would have been lost in the general hubbub of conversation in any other bar, carried clearly across the room.
"Oh, yeah, DM's definitely trying to get something."
Neither Mary nor Marshall needed to look to know that the speaker had nudged his neighbour to ensure his point was conveyed clearly.
Marshall rolled his eyes in Mary's direction. She grinned at his response.
"What does DM stand for?" she asked.
"Deputy Marshall," he said cringing as he did so. "It's what my brothers used to call me as a kid and it followed me here."
"Nice," she said sarcastically.
"Yes, it's the first thing I intend to lose in my new job." He bounced on the balls of his feet as he contemplated his new life, excitement radiating off him in the first display of non-sardonic emotion Mary had seen from him. She smiled as he ticked the points off on his fingers.
"Lose the nickname; get away from my overbearing brothers; get out from under the family name; live my own life for a change and make a name for myself."
"Amen, to that," Mary said quietly, raising her coffee cup in salute.
"That's the plan," Marshall said as the waitress put the final beer in front of him. "And until then, I'll put up with my brothers, their friends and their one track minds."
Mary recognised the mantra for what it was – the only way to get through a day without killing someone.
Marshall waited until the waitress had disappeared into the kitchen, flashed a winning smile at Mary, picked up several of the beers and the cranberry juice and headed back to the table. Mary moved discreetly back to the table in the corner that she had occupied.
She past the group just in time to hear the Johnny Cash Wannabe ask loudly, "Who wanted the cranberry juice?"
A groan arose from the occupants of the table.
"How the hell could you screw that up, DM?" Dimwit 1 asked over the general grumbling.
"What?" Marshall asked sincerely, "Nine beers and a cranberry juice. That's what you told me."
"No wonder you're being transferred to the ass-end of nowhere," Dimwit 2 joined in.
Marshall looked genuinely puzzled and offered, "Should I go get another beer then?"
Dimwit 2 waved him down. "Don't bother, I'll go. You'd probably manage to screw that up as well and I want a drink at some point tonight."
Dimwit 2 stomped off to the bar to begin the long wait for the waitress and a beer.
Marshall sat down, but before he disappeared into the crowd, his eyes met Mary's over the others' heads. She saw the gleam of mischief and barely contained amusement at his carefully wrought and subtle punishment. No one else did.
She went back to her job search with a private smile on her face.
There was still nothing there. She turned to the sports page. She read the racing form, thinking of her dad as she always did. Maybe she could get a job at the track? She was good with numbers; she'd always been able to work out the odds and payout of any race, but then she'd started young and had a lot of practise. That had been what had got her the job at the casino. But her inability to tolerate bullshit, also learnt at a young age, had once again got her fired. Why couldn't she just learn to keep her mouth shut?
Or maybe she could find a job with no people. Did such a job exist? she wondered, then ruled it out. As much as she hated people, she knew she would go crazy without human contact. She only needed to look at the last few days to see that. She felt surprisingly uplifted after having spoke to someone. Someone had at least cared enough to strike up a conversation and push her for an answer.
As she turned another page in the paper, Fate decided to play its hand. Mary was musing on the poor choice of the paper's editors in placing an ad with the heading 'Are you in excellent physical condition?' opposite a McDonald's ad when the purpose of the first ad sunk in.
She read further and wondered why she hadn't spotted this before – she had read the paper from cover to cover – how had she missed the fact the United States Marshals Service was recruiting? She scanned the requirements and wondered just what a US Marshal did. She looked over at the group on the other side of the room and heard one of them boasting about an arrest he had made. That was enough to trigger her memory; fragments of her social studies and history classes merged with the plot of a film she'd watched a year ago to inform her that Marshals were involved in fugitive recovery and transport.
She'd always shied away from a career in law enforcement. Her experience with cops had put her off. No way was she going into a career that seemed to turn everyone into moronic assholes. She'd never met a single cop she liked or could trust – and she'd met a lot of cops – which had always made her wary about the whole having-a-cop-as-a-partner thing. But US Marshals seemed to work more as a team, she thought. She tried her best to recall the movie and work out how much of it was based on fact. She remembered Tommy Lee Jones and a plane crash and there definitely seemed to be more of a team dynamic going on there. Teams she could live with. It was only trusting individuals that she had a problem with. In a team you could get lost and as long as you did your job, nobody noticed if you kept your distance.
And she'd just met one Marshal that wasn't a complete asshole, so maybe they weren't like cops. She watched as Dimwit 2 returned from the bar with a tray of shots, stood on the table and called for everyone to down a shot as punishment for some perceived rule that had been broken. Mary sighed, then again maybe not.
She managed to kill another hour in the bar, all the time, the idea of chasing criminals down wouldn't leave her alone. She tore the date and address of the next information session at the district office out of the paper and shoved it into her pocket. Maybe it was time to take a more active role in searching for her dad than hanging around casinos and hoping she would recognise him if he came in.
She drained the dregs of her cold coffee and headed to the bar to settle up, only to find the Johnny Cash Wannabe had already paid for her. She caught his eye and nodded her thanks before leaving.
Somewhere between Kansas City and Wichita
Mary stared out at the night.
Claudia and Henry were asleep in the back of the truck and she and Marshall had fallen into a companionable silence. She felt strangely comfortable with this man she'd only just met and couldn't put her finger on why.
"So, why did you become a Marshal?" Marshall asked, starting up the conversation they had let lapse for the last few miles.
"I met a guy in a bar and saw an ad in the paper," Mary said.
"You joined up because of a guy?" Marshall asked, surprised.
"No," Mary huffed. "It was coincidence. I met this guy, and saw the ad on the same day."
Mary recalled the meeting in the bar clearly. That day had since become important to her. It symbolized the day she had taken her life into her own hands and made a definite career choice rather than just finding another job. And she loved the career she had chosen. She even remembered the days of silence leading up to that day fondly. The lack of human contact had made her less willing to brush off the guy in the bar and some of his excitement and optimism at starting his life anew with his new job had stayed with her over the following days.
When Marshall had mentioned giving people the opportunity to chose what they wanted to change or keep in their lives, Mary had thought about DM and wondered briefly if he had managed to lose the nickname. It had been that thought that had stopped her belittling Marshall's pipe dream.
Suddenly, she managed to put two and two together and not get 22. Inspector Marshal Marshall Mann. Four years ago, he would have been a lowly Deputy, like her. Deputy Marshal Marshall Mann. Marshall to his friends. Deputy Mann to co-workers. Deputy Marshall to his brothers. DM.
She turned in her seat to study her temporary partner. How had she missed it? she wondered. One realised, it was obvious it was the same man. He had matured, there was an air of confidence and independence about him now and the Johnny Cash look had been toned down, but the cowboy boots were still very much present.
Marshall glanced over at Mary, aware he was being studied. He looked back at the road a moment before checking to see if the searching look was still on Mary's face.
"What?" he asked, starting to get a little freaked out at such intense scrutiny.
"Have you ever played Russian Roulette with cranberry juice?" Mary asked.