STEELE INSEPARABLE PART IX: DoppelSteele
AUTHOR: Madeleine Gilbert
SYNOPSIS: S5 continuation; ninth in a series. Her husband or the agency? Laura can only save one: she's made her choice. Now it's a battle to the death across two continents to take back what's theirs from Roselli.
SEQUEL TO: Part I, "Steele in Perspective'; Part II, "Steele-In-Law"; Part III, "Ancestral Steele"; Part IV, "Steele in the Shadows"; Part VI, "Notoriously, Steele"; Part VII, "Wife of Steele"; Part VIII, "Something Wicked This Way Steeles"
DISCLAIMER: This story is not for profit and is purely for entertainment purposes. The author does not own the rights to these characters and is not now, nor ever has been, affiliated in any way with Remington Steele, its producers, actors and their agents, MTM productions, the NBC television network or with any station or network carrying the show in syndication.
Additional characters from outside the RS canon, apart from historic personages, are fictional and created by the author. Any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Author's note: If the Steele Inseparable series had played out according to my original plan, this story would've been posted a year ago—if only "Notoriously, Steele" and "Wife of Steele" hadn't gotten in the way. All in all I can't say I'm sorry for the detour; it gave me countless hours of immersion in the joy of creation. And that, after all, is the reason I'm writing.
I'd like to express my sincere gratitude to everyone who let me know either through a posted review or PM that you'd like me to continue the Steeles' story. The encouragement and support mean more than I can say. Thank you all.
Special thanks to a fellow RS author and reader who was so kind as to share her knowledge of California's licensing procedures for private investigators. She's saved me from falling into an inaccuracy that would've been mortifying if I'd discovered it later (and from hours and hours of revisions.) For the record: the arrangement Laura and Harry agreed to when he came on board as Remington Steele wasn't illegal, nor is Remington Steele lack of a license. But it could be viewed as a violation of trust. That's the angle Roselli is playing against the Steeles—threatening exposure of the true nature of the partnership if they attempt to expose him—and how he's bound them in a catch-22 for which they can't find solution.
And now, without further ado…the rest of the story.
Dop•pel•gäng•er (German. dŏp'əl-geng-er)
n. A ghostly double of a living person that haunts its fleshly counterpart.
n. A co-walker or double who plots the demise of Remington Steele in order to take his place.
There was nothing so typically American as traveling the Southwest behind the wheel of an RV, reflected Remington Steele.
Apart from a screening of Heavens Gate (Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges, United Artists, 1980, running time 149 minutes), there was nothing quite so excruciatingly dull, either.
He ought to know. He'd been at it for the past three days. Ten hours a day of back roads whose pocked, crumbling asphalt made the streets of the Irish villages where he'd lived as a lad seem well-tended in comparison. Seven hundred ninety-seven miles of straggling, dingy towns, drab truck stops and squalid service stations. Three hundred hours of sun-baked land as far as the eye could see—land that offered none of the Technicolor grandeur he'd been led to expect by Red River, The Big Country and How the West Was Won. More like the setting for Easy Rider, he'd have said, in its inhospitality.
Or, he amended, remembering the motivation for this trip: Badlands. Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warner Brothers, 1970. A suspected murderer and the woman who loves him flee the police across an arid plain and into the unknown.
His wife, Laura, had already pointed the flaws in his analogy out to him. "The guy Martin Sheen played really was a murderer. You, on the other hand, have been framed for a murder you didn't commit. We're not on a killing spree; we're trying to keep you out of jail so we can prove you're innocent. Besides, the Badlands are in South Dakota."
Outwardly he had to concede she was right; privately he added the annotation to the list he was compiling in his head. The Phantom of Paris. The Scarlet Claw. Tension. Even The Black Room and Prisoner of Zenda afforded a certain perspective if he overlooked the family-resemblance angle. All of them except Badlands were variations on the theme of one man altering his appearance and demeanor, stepping into another man's shoes…and stealing another man's life.
Relevant film plots. In days gone by they were practically the sole contribution he could offer to an ongoing investigation. Now they'd become his way of making sense of the insanity that had begun a week ago with the death of Spotlight News anchorwoman Windsor Thomas at the hand of Remington's nemesis, the man he and Laura had called Tony Roselli.
Who was now calling himself Remington Steele.
Though the aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted from the living quarters behind him, a tea bag dangled from the covered mug Laura eventually carried into the cabin. After depositing the mug in the proper slot in the center console she lingered behind him, hands on his shoulders. "Ready for a break?"
"In a bit." Lifting his right hand from the wheel, he caught hers so he could kiss it and hold it to his cheek. "Come and keep me company a while."
It didn't take her long to accommodate his request. Back with her own mug, she sank into the passenger seat and curled her legs under her. Automatically she and Remington reached for each other. And, as the RV seemed to chase and then overtake the sunrise, they sat quiet, linked hands lying on the console between them.
By now it was near on eight in the morning, which added another hour on the road to the total they'd already racked up. The night before he'd calculated that they'd roughly four hundred miles left to travel. If all went well, they should arrive in Denver around two o'clock.
Denver. The home of their erstwhile colleague, Murphy Michaels. Laura wanted to hire him to prove Roselli had murdered Windsor Thomas. 'He's the only one who can help us, Remington,' she'd insisted.
Last week the mere suggestion had catapulted him to the height of indignation. Odd, but he couldn't seem to conjure up that sense of outrage anymore. He couldn't even recall what if felt like. Too much had befallen him and Laura in the interval. Appealing to Murphy for assistance had become nothing more than a minor irritation, a distasteful duty he had to discharge if he meant to fulfill the resolve that had been hardening in him since the moment Roselli had unleashed catastrophe upon them.
The wreckage extended in every direction. The agency gone, Laura's labor of love vanished down the drain during a travesty of a press conference called by Roselli. The Remington Steele persona wrested from them, possibly for good. He, Remington, bound in a web of circumstances that implicated him as chief suspect in the murder Roselli had committed. And all because he'd thoughtlessly taken credit for the capture of Sterling Fitch last May—credit Roselli believed belonged to him-and disclosed his presence at Ashford Castle to the Irish police, who had taken Roselli into custody.
Not to mention Laura, his new bride, publicly choosing him over Roselli. Mustn't forget that tiny little faux pas.
Laura hadn't. Worse, she was reserving the lion's share of blame for the entire debacle for herself. 'I should've seen it coming,' she said the night of the press conference in which Roselli had announced he was the real Remington Steele. With minor and unremarkable variations, that had been her contention ever since.
Remington begged to differ with her. Certainly it was clear in hindsight what Roselli had been up to all those months when he was breaking into their office on a nightly basis in order to comb through their files. But before last Thursday? His purposes were by no means so easy to fathom. Part of it was because he'd played the game cannily from the beginning, testing out his nascent Steele masquerade in innocuous arenas like a sweater shop in Maine and a university lecture in Massachusetts. Laura was perfectly justified in writing off those incidents as the work of a harmless crank. Nor could she have conceived that Roselli would return to the scene of another horrific crime he'd perpetrated: the murder by strangulation of U.S. Immigration Officer Gladys Lynch. By rights he should've been cowering in the deepest cover, praying he'd never be found out. Who'd have guessed he possessed the colossal audacity to draw public attention to himself under the very nose of the LAPD, whose most-wanted list he still topped, along with the FBI's?
Hubris. The bastard didn't suffer from a lack of it.
But even hubris wouldn't have availed Roselli, Remington was convinced, if not for a favorable confluence of events. Spotlight News anchorwoman Windsor Thomas had long considered Remington's past a compelling mystery and decided it was up to her to discover what he was hiding. Two weeks of poking around the Riviera had evidently provided her with a solution that satisfied her. All the Steeles knew for sure was that she'd searched for Armand Lortie, one of Remington's old partners in the smuggling operation he'd run on the Riviera in the seventies, and dropped in on him at his home in suburban Nice. Their brief meeting had so unnerved Lortie, he'd taken the unprecedented step of contacting Remington via telex to warn him he'd been made.
But the damage was done. Windsor returned to Los Angeles and wove what she'd learned about Remington's involvement in Cuillerier et fils and his alias, Jean Murrell, into a Spotlight News exclusive. That much Remington heard from her own lips, the fulfillment of her promise that when she was ready to shred his reputation before a television audience of tens of thousands, she'd notify him first. He had to hand it to her: she was true to her word. Bad luck on her that she happened to ring him at the agency at a moment when Roselli was monitoring a covert eavesdropping device he'd concealed at some point in Remington's office.
Bad luck on Remington, too.
For he'd rushed immediately to her home in Laurel Canyon in response to her invitation, harboring the pathetic hope that he could persuade her to see reason—or at the very least negotiate a compromise. As it turned out, he missed Roselli by minutes. Windsor was already dead of a gunshot wound. And Roselli was on his way to the Steeles' to plant the gun he'd used on her in their safe.
How would the story have played out if it hadn't occurred to Laura not long afterward to retrieve Remington's Colt from that same safe? The question had cost Remington several nights' sleep in the relative security of his and Laura's hideout at Lake Malibu. All he could say was, thank heaven she had; it had provided the clue that told them Roselli was behind the frame. The pistol he'd used to murder Windsor was one he'd stolen from Laura's handbag six months prior. Laura had recognized it just in time to hide it from Lieutenant Jarvis, head of the LAPD's homicide division, when he showed up unannounced on the Steeles' doorstep.
That visit, more than anything else, had fueled her conviction that they couldn't go back to Los Angeles anytime soon. Remington still wasn't quite sure why she was so adamant about it. But if there was anything he'd learned over five years of partnership, it was to trust Laura's instincts. Better to keep as far away as possible from a crusading cop who needed a quick arrest to quell public outcry over Windsor's death before it became deafening. On that issue Remington had come to agree with her.
But not on the matter of her guilt. Where she was wracking her brain to reassemble the sequence of events into a pattern she should've been clever enough to tease out, he perceived nothing but random mischance and a momentary advantage to Roselli. Gently but firmly, Remington was working to bring Laura round to that view. And anyway, only an imagination as diseased as Roselli's could've manufactured such a monstrous plan in the first place; nobody could've predicted he would exact revenge on them in this fashion.
Nobody could've predicted the magnitude of the backlash against them, either.
Or perhaps, taking into account how quickly their reputation plummeted in September, when Roselli tipped off the press that he'd broken into the agency, the Steeles could have predicted it. They just hadn't done it. Remington for his part could point unerringly to the reason for his failure to focus on eventual consequences and potential outcomes. Anxiety over Laura. It had overshadowed, blotted out, practically obliterated, every other concern.
Forget the past tense. He was still worried about her, and right to be, in his opinion. She wasn't herself. She hadn't been since the night Roselli stole the agency. He wouldn't presume to say he could read her like a book—a claim that always grated on his last nerve when she made it about him—but he did flatter himself he knew her better than anyone else in the world. And he'd stood shoulder to shoulder with her through enough adversity to recognize the way she dealt with it. Combative, impatient, confused, scared, puzzled, furious, exhausted, fed up, irritated, bewildered, so weakened by poison that she was forced to allow him to carry her to safety: each could've described Laura during some crisis or another over the years. Not once, however, had he seen her surrender voluntarily to anyone or anything. Never had he seen her lose the will to fight.
Never, that was, until now. And it was scaring the hell out of him.
"It's over," was what she'd said in the first moments following Roselli's announcement that he was the real Remington Steele. "The agency…Remington Steele…It's all over." A perfectly natural reaction-but temporary, Remington had assumed. As soon as the initial shock had worn off, and they'd assessed the damage, she'd snap out of it and bounce back more determined than ever to win back what was rightfully theirs.
Wrong on all three counts, he was.
The single ray of light in the situation was that she was consenting to lean on him. Granted, it wasn't as completely as he'd have liked—damsel in distress was a role Laura would never adopt by choice, no matter how much he might yearn in secret to act her knight in shining armor—but she hadn't run away or closed herself off from him. The finer bonds of trust they'd recently forged when she confided the truth about her father were holding fast. And for that he was overflowing with gratitude.
He'd admitted nothing of this to her, especially not while he held her close in the aftermath of that nightmarish press conference. He'd had a hard enough time coaxing her into his arms as it was. Instead he'd limited himself to resting his cheek on her hair and struggled to ignore a fresh stab of dismay at how fragile she suddenly seemed to have become within the space of a few short minutes.
They might've stood there forever in their usual cabin at Twin Pines Rentals—it was definitely more comfortable than facing reality—if Laura hadn't begun to shiver. Reluctant though he was to release her, he crossed the room to switch on a lamp and grab the suit jacket he'd shed on arrival. "Here. Before you catch your death."
"Right now I'd consider that the lesser of two evils," she said dryly as she slipped her arms through the sleeves. Catching his look, she gave him a wan smile. "Gallows humor. Sorry."
"I'm familiar with the impulse, my love."
After buttoning her up he steered her to the edge of the bed and knelt at her feet. "Now's probably as good a time as any to try and ring Mildred, eh? What do you think? It's dark enough to venture out and look for a pay phone."
The wave of apprehension that swept her face was too obvious to miss, but her voice had achieved something akin to its usual steadiness. "Maybe that's not such a good idea after all. Even a call from a pay phone can be traced. If the police decide to check her phone records, it'll lead them straight to us."
"Billie might be helpful in that regard." He felt her stiffen in alarm and hastened to add, "I've already told her about Windsor. She's on our side."
"Thank God someone is."
They found Billie in the main room of her cabin, placidly knitting to the accompaniment of a wildlife documentary. She hollered a welcome through the screen door and put her needlework aside to rise and envelope Laura in a gigantic hug. "There you are, cutie. What a sight for sore eyes."
Her warmth seemed to ease some of Laura's tension; Remington was glad of it. He was even more encouraged by the eagerness with which Billie jumped at the opportunity to do them a service. Soon she was leaving a cryptic message on Mildred's home answering machine: "The pound of striped bass and two pounds of trout you ordered is ready. Please call Chelsea Nash in Twin Pines for pick up information, 555-6627."
"Excellent improvisation," Remington congratulated her when she'd finished. "But which one of us is the bass, and which one's the trout?"
"That's up to you kids to decide. I'm staying out of the middle." It wasn't so much a twinkle in her eye as a shrewd but compassionate gleam, appraising both Steeles; it rested longest on Remington. "While we're waiting for Mildred to call back, maybe you can explain why that guy was on the news, trying to convince the world he's you."
Laura sagged in her seat on the sofa. "You saw him."
"Saw him? I couldn't get away from him. He was hogging every channel."
Alert to Laura's muffled groan of discouragement, Remington perched on the sofa arm nearest her and reached for her hand. "An old enemy with a score to settle," he said.
"The one who killed Windsor Thomas?" asked Billie.
"The very one."
"Must be a hell of a score."
"Only in his head. But in this case I suppose it's all that matters."
Billie gestured, conveying her bewilderment. "Okay, I know it's none of my business, but where does he get off pretending he's Remington Steele? And why aren't you going after him with both barrels?"
The Steeles exchanged a look.
"There are some…irregularities…in the way we operate as an agency," Laura replied at last. "Nothing illegal, but if they're revealed, they'll raise serious questions about our integrity. And a reputation for integrity's like gold in this business. Once it's lost, it's practically impossible to get it back."
"We may as well adopt another line of work altogether," agreed Remington. He was thinking of sundry alumni of the legendary Havenhurst Agency, former colleagues of Laura's whom he'd met five years ago at a reunion weekend that would live forever in his memory. The fates of Sandy Maxwell, Carl Wallace and Donald Ottoson: each was a cautionary tale on the way in which a single ethical lapse could forever blight a PI's career.
They would've confided more to Billie, but Mildred had chosen that moment to ring the cabin. Remington watched with a sinking feeling as Billie handed the phone over to Laura. He wished so much that his and Laura's positions were reversed that he briefly debated snatching the handset from her grasp. No doubt Mildred was going to need a hefty dose of reassurance at the turn events had taken. How would Laura manage it when she was barely coping herself?
There he underestimated his wife. Though Laura's hello was delivered in the subdued little voice she'd developed in the wake of Roselli's announcement, she said all the right things as Mildred poured out the shock and fear of the past several hours. And she went on to explain the situation on their end, the listening device in the office that had prevented the Steeles from speaking to Mildred sooner, the evidence Laura had discovered of Roselli's frame, the motivation behind their flight to Twin Pines.
As it happened, Mildred had had almost as rough a time as they. Late in the afternoon Jarvis had made an appearance at the agency, asking loaded questions and demanding the whereabouts of Mr. Steele. It had afforded her a certain amount of smug satisfaction to be able to tell him truthfully that she didn't know, she hadn't seen or heard from the chief in ages. Hoping one or both of the Steeles would eventually call in, she'd stayed late, only to be pinned to the office by the press conference. Afterwards she was forced to barricade herself in Laura's office, lights off, while reporters pounded on the main doors and shook them by their handles. Meanwhile a barrage of incoming calls had assaulted the phones; she'd begun taking messages off the answering machine, but was daunted by the sheer number of them-
At that point the conversation took an abrupt turn. Instead of relaying Mildred's side to him line by line, as she had up to then, Laura simply stood and listened. Her responses sounded terse and enigmatic to Remington's ears, her grip on the handset was white-knuckled. The longer Mildred spoke, the bleaker her expression became.
Suddenly she turned and thrust the phone at him. "You talk to her."
He wavered a moment, torn between the sight of the screen door slamming behind his wife and the telephone in his hand. It needed Mildred's "Mrs. Steele? Mrs. Steele! Are you there—?" to rouse him.
Billie was hurrying after Laura, to his relief. "Yes, Mildred, yes, it's me, Mr. Steele," he said into the mouthpiece.
"Chief! Thank God! Is Mrs. Steele all right?"
"A trifle overwhelmed. She just needs a chance to get her feet back under her. Speaking of which, how are you holding up?"
"Better, now that I know what's going on. But, oh, chief, that slime ball—that rat—! How can he get away with this-?"
"He's fiendishly clever, that's how. Not to mention ruthless. And he's impaled us on the horns of a nasty dilemma."
Mildred was struggling to catch up; he suspected it even before she admitted it aloud. "I'm not sure I'm following you."
"It's the license. By law Laura didn't need one to hire me to pose as Remington Steele. The only way to prove Roselli's is a fake is to show Remington Steele never really existed…that Laura's the licensed private detective, not me…that all this time, we've been perpetrating a hoax."
"Oh, my God."
"That's just for starters. Don't forget he's raised a red flag that will completely blow us out of the water, once the State Licensing Bureau comes to hear of it. If they haven't already."
"You mean…the discrepancy in the signatures?"
"The proof's there in black and white, sufficient to implicate me as the fraud and impostor he's declared me to be. I'll wager it's only a matter of time before someone starts digging around in my past to discover who I really am."
Put into words, it struck him afresh, the blackness of their circumstances. He raised a hand to his eyes as if by covering them he could somehow shut the knowledge out. Silence of some duration settled between him and Mildred.
She broke it by saying, "Can we win this one, Mr. Steele? Or is this the end of everything?" The quaver in her voice was audible.
He wanted to buck her up. Truly he did. It was how the strong, stalwart, compassionate Remington Steele—the one Laura had created, the man he liked to flatter himself he'd in some measure become—would've reacted. But all he could do was pinch the bridge of his nose more tightly and shake his head.
"Damned if I know, Mildred," he said grimly. "Damned if I know."
By the time Remington returned to his and Laura's cabin, she'd already showered and changed. Wrapped in her dressing gown, her hair tumbling in damp tendrils about her shoulders, she was sitting up in bed—just sitting there idly, without so much as a book in her hand. He tried to tell himself she was waiting for him because it was better than believing she was too demoralized to focus on the printed page.
She watched as he hunted in a suitcase for a pair of pajamas. "You brought Mildred up to speed?" she said.
"As far as possible. Naturally I couldn't answer the most important question of all."
"And that was-?"
"What we're going to do next. We've some choices to make, Laura. And we need to make them soon."
"I know. Frances and my mother have been trying to get a hold of us, by the way."
"So Mildred said." The information had shed substantial light on the reason for Laura's precipitous departure from Billie's, but this he kept to himself.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Absorbed in a search for his shaving kit, he didn't glance up. "What's what supposed to mean?"
" 'So Mildred said'. Don't bother answering. I know exactly what it means."
Ah, yes, her unshakable conviction that she could read him like a book. He was wondering when it would rear its ugly head. On the other hand, in the midst of upheaval, turmoil and loss, it was good to see some things never changed.
"You think I shouldn't have put them off," she was saying.
"You think it was wrong not to call them back."
Now he did meet her eyes. She was deliberately challenging him; he'd have had to be blind and deaf not to realize it. Typical behavior, it was. Annoyed with herself for her earlier weakness, perhaps suffering from guilt over what she regarded as neglect of her family, she was preparing to take it out on him.
There's my girl, he thought, hiding a smile.
Misdirected or not, her indignation was rising. To defuse it he said mildly, "It's not what I think that matters, is it? It's for you to decide." He paused on his way to the bathroom to lift a tress of her hair and squeeze it between affectionate fingers. "But for the record, I'd rather you waited until you feel you can handle it. And I've asked Mildred to let them know we're okay and we'll get in touch as soon as we can."
That removed a good deal of the wind from her sails; he even imagined he sensed a degree of contrition when he joined her in bed, though he couldn't be sure, since he was judging by the promptness with which she moved into his arms. "I'll talk to Mother and Frances first thing tomorrow," she said by way of apology.
"A wise idea. Exactly the option I'd have proposed if you'd asked my advice."
There was a trace of sly humor in the gaze she fastened on his face. "Really? And if I decided it's too dangerous, no contact with family until this mess is behind us? What would you say then?"
"The same. I know what's expected of me as a husband, even if I don't always appear to."
She laughed at that—not loud or long, which would've been asking too much, but it was her first genuine laugh in hours. To him it held all the sweetness there could possibly exist in the world, as well as the promise of renewed hope and joy.
All too soon it died away. "I can't face them yet," she said. "Not tonight. I guess that makes me a coward, huh? On top of everything else?"
"It makes you an amazing woman who's bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders and more. And who needs a good night's sleep." He reached over and switched off the lamp. "Things'll look better by the light of day. You'll see."
"Of course they will. They always do." He kissed her forehead, kissed her lips, wrapped her more securely in his embrace.
And, staring into the alien darkness of the cabin that wasn't their home, added, but only to himself:
They had to. God knew they certainly couldn't get any worse.
TO BE CONTINUED