A/N: Just a quick note to say, I got the job! Thank you for your good thoughts, and, for those who prayed, your prayers.
I'm getting acclimated to the new environment (today was my first day), but have made changes in my writing routine that will help me to make better progress in posting. As always, I appreciate your indulgence and patience, your support and feedback. More than you know!
"Like it or not, we're going to be spending a lot of time together for the next few weeks," Flannery said. "You'll have to talk to me at some point. Besides, open communication is good for the soul…Sister."
Those were the first words Flannery had addressed to Laura since their flight had taken off from Dublin. Occupying the window seat to his left in her masquerade as a nun, she didn't raise her head from the in-flight magazine she was pretending to read. Ordinarily she wouldn't have given it a glance. But the paperback she was in the middle of was back at The Ashford's guest house, along with the rest of her belongings. Those would arrive at the Steele's villa in Menton after Remington packed them up and sent them on—one of the jobs Flannery would assign him later when phoning him with his "instructions." Until then, Laura would have to make do on a variety of fronts. And right now her most pressing need was a pretext to avoid interaction with Flannery.
It had puzzled her to find they were flying commercial to Nice. She'd expected some kind of military transport at the very least. But no: the driver of the dark sedan that picked them up outside the hospital had headed straight for Dublin Airport and dropped them off at the area designated for international departures. There a third man had joined them and accompanied Laura and Flannery into the terminal. Something about him, probably his ramrod-straight back, suggested he ought to be in an Army uniform instead of the plain dark suit he was wearing; the crisp nod he gave Flannery seemed to camouflage a salute. Without introducing himself to Laura, he fell into step behind them, presented his boarding pass at the counter and followed them onto the plane. Now he was seated ahead of them in row number four. Whether to thwart a would-be assailant or to guarantee she didn't bolt, Laura wasn't sure.
Not that she had any intention of trying. If the last two days had taught her anything, it was a healthy respect for the capabilities of the man next to her. Previously she'd allowed Remington's scorn, product of what he considered Flannery's dilettantish performance in chasing Roselli, to cloud her judgment. Thus she'd come to view Flannery as easily dismissed, easily fobbed off, easy to fool.
She wouldn't make that mistake again.
Respect was one thing; liking was something else. Flannery had forfeited any claim on her friendship by insulting Remington earlier. The hell Flannery had put her husband through was bad enough. But to imply Remington had earned it by a lapse in his professionalism-! And to rub his face in it when he was at his most vulnerable-! Her dander rose again just thinking about it.
Anger was the perfect distraction. It stopped her from dwelling on the pain of separation from Remington—pain that their brief reunion at the hospital had only intensified. She almost wished Flannery hadn't brought them together in the first place. Or did she? Which was worse? To have her husband in her embrace for a few precious minutes before they were torn apart? Or to be marched off into exile without seeing for herself that he was all right, holding him, comforting him? She would've needed to toss a coin to decide that one.
Especially since neither of them had any idea how long it would be before he came home to her. Flannery hadn't furnished any specifics. Three days? A week? More? But maybe he'd built some flexibility into his plans. And maybe, just maybe, he could be persuaded to hurry the situation along, and transfer Remington to Menton sooner than anticipated. Recent appearances to the contrary, Flannery wasn't completely unreasonable-there was a good possibility he'd be open to compromise if she talked to him—
From the corner of her eye she noted Flannery watching her as if waiting for a reply. She schooled herself to respond with a cool, level stare instead of the spitting fury she was dying to unleash. "I agree, it's in my best interest to cooperate with you," she said. "But let's get something straight. That punch my husband threw at you at the hospital? He had my full support. In other words, Father…what you did to us is not okay."
"I did what I had to, to save your life." Flannery's accent was pure American again. "The same way I would've saved your husband's, if he'd gone into the warehouse with you. Why didn't he? I thought you always worked as a team."
That was an issue for Laura and Remington to thrash out once their lives had returned to normal. In the meanwhile, she was damned if she was going dredge it up simply to satisfy Flannery's curiosity. She deflected him with, "I have an idea. Why don't you let me ask the questions for a change? And give me some honest answers? Since we'll be spending so much time together. I've heard communication's good for the soul."
"Cagey, Mrs. Steele. Very cagey."
Laura nodded her thanks for the compliment.
"And I bet I can predict the first question. How did I figure out what Niemand was up to?"
"How did you?"
"It was Pete Frye, to be honest. He filed a report the afternoon he disappeared. All I had to do was follow up on his information."
"And spin it into a plan of your own."
"It was a long shot, but the best chance I had of taking you out of the line of fire for good."
Laura closed the magazine and put it away. "That's where you lose me. You must've had us under surveillance, watching Niemand watch us. Clearly you assumed he'd try to lure me—us—into his trap."
"That's about the size of it."
"Then why not just capture him, and save yourself the trouble?"
"Remember I told you, he's too smart to do the dirty work himself. That wasn't Niemand you trailed from the library yesterday."
"Cristiano Primi. Who's now been in custody for almost twenty-four hours." Flannery tried on a conciliatory smile. "See? We're not as incompetent as Mr. Steele likes to think we are."
That point was debatable in Laura's opinion, but she allowed it to pass without comment. "And Niemand?"
"Flying under the radar again. But we'll get him, I swear. It's just a matter of time."
It was on the tip of Laura's tongue to remind him that he'd offered similar assurances in the past, assurances that had amounted to nothing. It wasn't the most diplomatic observation she could offer, if she hoped to win him over with regards to Remington's arrival at the Villa Montreuil. Firmly she resisted the urge and said, "As long as he buys into this scenario of yours. What makes you so sure he will?"
"Long, painful acquaintance. Cooperation from the hospital and the mortician in case Niemand starts asking dangerous questions. They'll back up the story that your body was brought in, identified and prepared for burial. It helps to have connections, Mrs. Steele."
"Is a well-known attorney—what they call a barrister over here. The assistant to the administrative head of Mater Misericordiae is an old friend of mine. Sharla O'Dacy. I owe her big for this one, believe me."
For a man who prior to this afternoon had been close-mouthed about his activities, Flannery had suddenly become downright garrulous. A day late and a dollar short, Captain, Laura admonished him, although not aloud. From his expression she deduced he was expecting, even inviting, her admiration and approval. Well, to hell with that. And to hell with currying favor, pleading Remington's case with him, too.
So she ignored his pathetic gambit to elicit praise from her and turned the conversation in the direction she wanted it to go. "By the way, what is Niemand's real name? You do know it, don't you?"
Flannery looked surprised. "Of course. Anthony Giardina from Roxbury, New Jersey. I really didn't tell you?"
"You really didn't." Giardina, she was thinking. The Primis' mother's maiden name; the connection she always suspected existed between them and Roselli—and a new clue she'd uncovered at the National Library. It was good to know she hadn't lost her touch, even if there wasn't a damned thing she could do with the information.
Her inattentiveness appeared to bother Flannery, or maybe he saw it as a chance to win her back to his side. "I know you don't trust me or my methods," he said. "The truth is, I had to play the cards I was dealt. I did the best I could. I wish you could see it that way."
"All right, you've convinced me. It's a well-thought out plan, maybe even brilliant. Congratulations." Her bitterness was morphing into sarcasm; she saw Flannery's brow furrow as he registered it. "But for the sake of argument, here's a question. How do you think your wife would react?"
"You did tell us you're married, didn't you? Say someone treated her the way you've been treating my husband, lying to her, manipulating her. How would she feel about that? How would you feel when you found it?"
The last traces of animation drained from Flannery's face; she had effectively punctured his buoyant mood. At first she thought she'd also offended him, which didn't cause her a moment's distress. But then she got a good look at the sadness in his eyes and the lines that bracketed his mouth, and realized she'd missed the mark.
"I'm a widower," he said.
"Oh." Now it was her turn to fall silent after a hastily murmured, "I'm sorry." And she really was sorry, enough to touch his sleeve as a thought struck her. "You don't mean Niemand-"
"No. God, no. It was cancer, ovarian cancer. By the time she was diagnosed it was already spreading. She died last Thanksgiving."
Just under six months ago. Sympathy was tempering Laura's grievance against him in spite of herself. She was also remembering a throwaway remark from the night he first made his presence known to her and Remington and aligning it with the facts she'd just learned. "That's why you've only been on the Niemand case sporadically. You took a leave of absence so you could be with her."
"Nine months. At the beginning it sounded like a lot of time." His gaze traveled past her and out the window. "It went by faster than I ever dreamed."
"What was her name?"
There didn't seem to be much else to say. But when they settled back into their respective seats, it was with a tentative new footing forged between them. Or it would have been, if Laura hadn't hardened herself against it. Flannery of all people had firsthand experience of grief and loss; he lived with it every day. He should've put himself in Remington's shoes, understood how Remington would react to her faked death, and adjusted his plan accordingly.
There was nothing she could do to change that now. There was also no chance that Flannery would ever be more to her and Remington than an obstacle in their quest to bring Roselli to justice. Poor guy. Too bad he didn't know the Steeles had two ways of dealing with obstacles: maneuvering around them, or undermining them.
She wondered which approach they would use on Flannery.
Roughly three days later, convincingly established in his role as grieving widower, the tasks imposed on him by Flannery accomplished, Remington, too, was on a plane to Nice.
By then he was heartily sick of air travel. No wonder: he'd been at it for most of the previous forty-eight hours. First there was the staged departure from Dublin, where he'd looked on from the terminal while an empty casket was unloaded from a hearse supplied by the ever-obliging Niall Donegal of Donegal & Sons and hoisted into the cargo hold of a jetliner. Soon he was boarding the same Washington, D.C.-bound flight as a passenger. Upon landing in D.C. seven hours later, his minders—two American soldiers lying in wait for him at the guest house on his return from Mater Misericordiae—had executed a series of maneuvers that landed him on a second jet, destination London. Barely had it touched down at Heathrow before he was hustled off to a small plane on a private air strip. On takeoff he'd recognized immediately that they were headed for France at last, and heaved a sigh of relief.
Though almost four days had passed since the explosion, he was not yet altogether himself.
That was unnerving, even a trifle embarrassing. Always he'd prided himself on being the resilient sort, a man who took the lumps life dealt him, absorbed them and then moved on without suffering discernible side effects. Granted, in the past he might've brooded for a few days over an experience such as the one he and Laura had just been through; another layer of cynicism would've accrued as the result of Flannery's treachery and hardened like scar tissue over a flesh wound. But he, Remington, would've eventually regained his perspective, his ability to laugh at himself and circumstances, and bounced back. He wouldn't have segued into gloom so deep he was beginning to fear it might become permanent. He wouldn't have awakened three nights running from shouting, sweating nightmares that left him too shaken to court sleep again.
As the cliché went, there was a first time for everything.
There was also a cure; she was waiting for him in Menton. Thank God for Laura. While he knew himself well enough to know he'd not confess his weakness to her, he was certain her mere presence would restore him, if not totally to normal, then near enough to make no difference. Her strength and common sense, not to mention her perfect little body: yes, he was counting on them to send the demons fleeing. He had the utmost faith in her. The two of them were, after all, better together.
What she wouldn't be able to banish was the incredible anger that rode him now.
Nor did he want her to. That anger was a private matter, and his to nurse as he pleased. Sprung to life as soon as he got a good look at Flanney's smug, hypocritical face the afternoon after the explosion, it had never really died. And why should it? Hadn't Flannery arbitrarily excluded Remington from his plot to save Laura? Hadn't he disparaged Remington's abilities within her earshot? Hadn't he offered the worst humiliation of all by whisking her away to Menton as if Remington was unequal to the responsibility of protecting her? Those resentments still seethed in Remington, seeking release. They would need no provocation to explode into violence the way they had at the hospital.
Yet all of it was tame in comparison to what he felt for Roselli.
Well, that was nothing new. He'd been stewing in that particular brand of fury at one level or another for the better part of six months. What had changed was his expectation that in the end, it would be his hand that meted out the vengeance Roselli deserved. He'd been depending on it, really, finishing the job he and Murphy had started in Boston. Although he wouldn't have put it in so many words, the deepest part of himself recognized how necessary it was to him as a husband…as a man. And now Flannery was depriving him of that, too.
Finally the little plane touched down in Nice, and it was off to Menton via the Autoroute. Remington spent much of the ride dozing, head against the cushion of the Daimler sedan's rear seat. Intermittently the voices of his escorts in animated discussion of something called spring training drifted back to him. Tedesco and Meecham: tough on him at first, but their watchfulness had relaxed in direct proportion to the hours he accumulated in their custody without attempting to give them the slip. No doubt he should have told them at the outset that they'd no reason to worry. How were they to know that making a run for it was the last thing on his mind? That he wanted nothing more on earth than to go home to Laura?
Possibly that explained the jolt of adrenalin that roused him as they picked up the Lower Corniche. A casual sightseer's attention would've been attracted by the azure expanse of the Mediterranean to the right; he cared only for the soft green hills on the left. He couldn't really see the rue Ferdinand Bac from here, of course. But his imagination, always so active, was quick to supply the details. The hillside staircase whose steps he would ascend two at a time; the low stucco villa glowing pink against its backdrop of olive trees; the big common room, as refreshing as a lemon ice on a hot day…
The lovely young lady, chestnut-haired and dark-eyed, who was both the impetus for his journey and the reward at its end.
He found her swimming furious laps in the pool behind the house.
Ignoring the urge to sweep her up, he looked on for a few minutes. It was plain to him immediately that she was working off excess energy rather than taking exercise. Or more specifically, pushing herself to physical exhaustion. He was familiar with the signs. Haunted by memories of the explosion, frustrated with a turn of events that prevented her from pursuing the mystery of the Egyptian treasure, she was doing her damnedest to blot out her thoughts.
And missing him? Ah, they'd soon remedy that.
Finally she surfaced at the deep end of the pool and groped for the edge. Bending down to meet her, he grasped her hand. "Bathing Beauty," he said as he lifted her out of the water. "Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Basil Rathbone, MGM, 1944. Made Esther one of the most popular pin-ups in the States, it did. But she can't hold a candle to you."
He'd have wrapped her towel about her, but Laura rendered it unnecessary by jumping into his arms and clinging to his neck, legs wrapped around his waist. "Mr. Steele! Oh-!"
A man couldn't ask for a more exuberant welcome from his wife. He held her hard, dripping little armful that she was, and laughed beneath the greedy kisses she was showering on his face and throat. It took a while to capture her mouth and keep it pressed to his own, but once he did—well, thought, perception and memory seemed to spiral down to a single point until there was nothing left to him but pure sensation, submerged in the feel and taste and scent of his Laura, as he'd longed so desperately to be these interminable days without her.
When he raised his head sometime later to take a breath, it was with the sense that they weren't alone. Sure enough, there was a soldier stationed near the patio door, scarlet with embarrassment. "Oh, hello," Remington said. To Laura he added: "Who's that?"
"Oh. Hello, Sergeant Tyrone."
Sergeant Tyrone mumbled something and averted his eyes.
"I think we're making him uncomfortable," Laura commented in a stage whisper.
"Splendid piece of deduction, Mrs. Steele. Shall we leave him to it?" Remington was striding towards the patio with her. "And take our reunion inside?"
"Mr. Steele, I thought you'd never ask."
Neither of them could resist flashing big grins at Tyrone as they passed him. They found Meecham and Tedesco standing about the living room, who knew for what purpose; in no mood for dealing with Flannery's subordinates, the Steeles breezed by them, too, and made straight for their bedroom.
It was what they'd been pining for since Flannery had parted them, to be alone together, behind closed doors. As soon as he set her on the bed she was on her knees and tugging his damp shirt out of the waistband of his jeans. He in the meantime availed himself of the first chance he'd had to fully appreciate the red bikini she was wearing. "New swimsuit, eh?"
"Gilbert's granddaughter picked it up for me." Gilbert Trottier was the villa's caretaker. "It's a little more…revealing…than I'd like."
"Nonsense. If you've got it, flaunt it, my love." To underscore his words he loosened the ties that fastened the bikini top and tossed it aside.
Skillfully working his shirt buttons open, she sighed in pleasure as his hands teased her breasts. "I've missed you. I have so much to tell you."
"What an interesting coincidence. I've so much to tell you." He shrugged the shirt off and let it fall to the floor. Now was the time to mold her against him, skin-to-skin; already his body was surging with anticipation of the voluptuous joys that lay ahead…
But Laura pushed away from him slightly, palms flat against his chest, and tilted her head so she could scrutinize him more closely. "The truth about Claudio Malatesta, Roselli's real name and a very revealing insight from Flannery. You?"
"Oh, nothing particularly earth-shattering." He smirked. "Only that I found the treasure."
Her eyes lit up. "You did? How?"
"An unbeatable combination of application, skill and persistence." Badly as he wanted to make love to her, he could tell the moment was slipping away; the gleam in her eye was borne of the excitement of putting the puzzle together instead of desire for him. With a regretful sigh of his own he admitted it to himself and released her. "Is there anything in the kitchen worth scrounging? Breakfast was slim pickings at best, and I haven't eaten since."
She patted his shoulder. "Poor baby. I'll see what I can do." Completely unselfconscious in her bare feet and his discarded shirt, she padded off on her domestic errand.
So it was with an odd assortment of leftovers—a loaf of bread, slices of cold veau aux olives, the remnants of an anchovy-laden pissaladière,a couple of nectarines, a wedge of poivre d'âne and two cups of faiselle sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts—on a tray between them, and a bottle of Côtes de Provence rosé to wash the impromptu meal down, that they stretched out on the bed, and exchanged their news.
Laura went first. And her bombshell was big: nothing less than Claudio Malatesta's obituary, discovered in an Italian newspaper during the course of her microfilm research at the National Library. "1951 in Alexandria, Egypt," she said. "Cause of death unknown. But there was a list of the family he left behind. His widow, Altovese, sons Tiberio and Anastasio, and a daughter. Antonia Giardina of Roxbury, New Jersey." On this last tidbit she gazed at Remington expectantly.
He blinked. "Is that supposed to mean something?"
"Roselli's real name is Anthony Giardina. Care to guess where he was born?"
"Roxbury? So he's-"
"Malatesta's grandson. Now that you're here, you can check it out with Murphy. But I'm almost positive he is."
"What do you make of the rest of it? The fact that Malatesta died in Alexandria, for example?"
"I'm guessing the Egyptian authorities got wind of the smuggling operation, and Malatesta ended up being the fall guy. Back in those days Alexandria was the site of a penitentiary for long-term offenders—one of the few in the entire country. As a prisoner of the state, Malatesta would've been sent there." Laura paused to sip her wine. "It's only a theory. But it does fit."
"It also confirms you were right. Avenging his grandfather is the motive behind Roselli's vendetta against the Beverleys. And, by extension, us."
"It's that Ligurian blood of his, Mr. Steele. In my experience, blood will generally out."
His sentiments exactly, Remington thought. He was also aware of a tiny but insistent thrill of victory. In the midst of adverse circumstances, beset on every side, he and Laura had nevertheless unraveled Roselli's labyrinthine plot. Of course it was by no means assured that they'd defeat him in the end. But if they went down, it would be fighting to the last gasp.
He lifted his wineglass in a toast. "Well done, Laura. I take in you haven't confided any of this to Flannery?"
"You must be joking. But get this." And in a few terse sentences she related what she'd learnt about Christine Flannery.
Remington digested the information in silence. Then he reached for a lock of Laura's hair, curly now that it was dry, and wound it absently around his finger. "I can sympathize with him. Curious, isn't it? But not enough to excuse how he's behaved."
"Me neither. It does explain a lot, though. His single-mindedness. Why capturing Roselli is so important to him. He doesn't have anything else to care about. " Moving the tray out of the way, she wriggled closer to Remington. "Enough about him. Tell me about the treasure."
That was a happier subject; by the time they'd exhausted it, they were smiling. "You know, Laura, it occurs to me…there could be quite a hefty finder's fee involved, once we've restored the plunder to its home country," Remington ventured as persuasively as he knew how.
"I thought we agreed we're doing it for the Earl's sake, and Catherine's."
"So we are. But as long as a reward's on offer…and it was our hard work and dedication that brought the treasure to light…"
His wife was shook her head at him. "You and your finder's fees," she laughed, a signal that no escalation of the charm offensive would be necessary.
With two days' jet lag catching up to him, he wasn't up for it in any case—or much of anything else, either. Even his earlier hankering for a romp with Laura had faded. Yawning, he sprawled out more heavily on the featherbed.
It was only when he'd struggled into a sitting position, arms and legs still thrashing, ears ringing with his outcry of pain and fear, that he realized he'd dropped off to sleep.
Hours ago, by the look of things, for full dark had descended. Through the pounding of his heart and his labored breathing he was dimly aware that Laura had left his side and crossed to the door to hold a low conversation with someone in the hallway, a conversation he couldn't hear. Given the state he was in, he likely wouldn't have been able to make heads nor tails of it. But her absence began to chafe him. What in blazes was taking her so long? Was she never coming back to bed?
As soon as she did, she wrapped her arms around him. The negligee she'd changed into left her shoulders bare; he rested his forehead against the near one, and let the shudders ripple through him until his body finally stilled of its own accord.
His voice felt raw in his throat. "Nightmare," he croaked, stating the obvious.
"Sh. I know. And I'm here, sweetheart. I'm here. I'm not going anywhere."
It was the refrain she'd murmured over and over to him for the past few minutes. Suddenly he wondered whether he'd said or done something whilst in the throes that had furnished a clue to the source of his terror. If she asked, how would he answer? Should he describe the dream sequence that unspooled in his head night after night to her? The endless loops of the warehouse blown to kingdom come, his frenzied battle with Flannery, the blackened, shriveled human remains that he'd thankfully never seen with his eyes, but his wayward brain persisted in conjuring up?
He couldn't. The words wouldn't come. He couldn't force them out now matter how hard he tried. Besides, there were other things they needed—he needed—to air out between them.
Rolling away from her, he sank back on his pillow and stared at the ceiling, which somehow made it easier to speak. "I shouldn't have let you go in there alone, Laura. I never should've. It was stupid, and wrong."
He waited in no little suspense for a reply from her but was disappointed. "Say something," he prompted her.
"What do you want me to say?"
"That you forgive me."
"There's nothing to forgive."
"There's nothing to forgive," she repeated. "If you'd come with me, if Roselli's plan had worked like it was supposed to, you would've died, too. Do you think that's what I would've wanted?"
"It's what I would've wanted," he whispered.
She sat up abruptly. At first he thought it was because she was angry, but meeting her eyes put paid to that notion. They were worried but affectionate. "Did you finish the sketch?" she asked.
Amazingly, in the mad shuffle between airports, he had. "It's with my things."
"I can't wait to see it."
Her wish being his command, as it were, he threw back the covers preparatory to leaping out of bed. "I could-"
"Remington, no." Catching his elbow, she held him back. "It's late. Come on, lie down with me."
To the accompaniment of squeaking bedsprings and rustling bedclothes they rearranged themselves. Yes, this was more like it; this was what he'd dreamt of: Laura spooned into the curve of his body, himself soothed by the rise and fall of her breathing, the circulating blood whose pulse throbbed beneath his fingertips. The evidence of her life, in other words. Gradually the residue of nightmare, stripped of its power, dwindled, and was forgotten.
Which made it possible to attend to what she was saying. Listening with all his ears, he was, for with the incredible clearsightedness that was her trademark, she was putting their fundamental conflict into context. "We'll have to figure it out at some point," she said. "Because the problem's not going away. You'll never stop wanting to protect me-"
"They'll be making snowballs in hell first."
"—and I have to follow where facts and instinct lead me in an investigation, even if it's dangerous. I can't help it. It's who I am." She hesitated and then took up the thread again, sounding uncharacteristically young and uncertain. "We won't lose each other over this. We waited so long for each other. We've fought so hard to make it work."
"Nothing'll ever tear me away, Laura. I promised you, remember?"
"So we'll search for common ground?"
"Wherever it's to be had."
She turned over to face him, and he thought what a paradox it was that her eyes should be so dark, yet simultaneously so full of light, luminous. "Kiss me goodnight, Mr. Steele," she said.
Through the drowsy haze that was stealing over him, he complied. First her lips. Her eyelids, one by one. Her forehead. Then her lips again. "I love you," he breathed.
"And I love you." She kissed his chest, just above the clustering curls, and rested her cheek on it; his hand slipped under her hair to cradle her head.
And that was how they fell asleep.
Life at the villa Montreuil quickly settled into a routine. And the routine, in turn, became grinding in its monotony.
That was because the Steeles' activities were tightly circumscribed, especially Laura's. It was the sensible way to handle it, in light of the fact she was presumed to be dead. No contact with outsiders. She couldn't make or receive telephone calls. No jogging along the rue Ferdinand Bac; no jaunts to town or the beach. The Steeles weren't even allowed to keep a hired car, dispatching the caretaker and his wife, Madeleine, to run errands and pick up supplies in their ancient Peugeot. Those were Flannery's orders. The soldiers guarding the Steeles enforced them unswervingly.
Flannery himself checked in every few days or so, sometimes by phone, once or twice in person. Mainly he addressed himself to the five-man security detail he'd assigned to the Steeles: Lieutenant Vitale and Sergeants Tyrone, Tedesco, Meecham and Khun. Flannery did offer the Steeles occasional progress reports, which they couldn't help but notice were inconclusive. He hadn't pinpointed Niemand's whereabouts. Niemand was still on the run. Or, as Laura privately translated to Remington, at liberty, at large, on the loose. Free to commit murder and mayhem when and where he wished.
They could've done a better job of catching him than Flannery was. Though neither of them said it, they were both thinking it. Instead they were prisoners in everything but name. As Laura had good reason to know from her overnight incarceration in Dublin, the fact that it was their own home made no difference. The confinement was just as irksome as if they were languishing behind actual bars and barbed wire.
The first week was the easiest. There was the sexual side of their relationship to occupy them, forty-eight hours in which they devoted themselves to making up for lost time, emerging from their bedroom only to shower or use the bathroom or eat the meals Madeleine Trottier prepared for them. By the end of day one, Remington was sure he noted a touch of envy in the glances the soldiers on their ten-hour rotations directed at him on the rare occasions they saw him. He was cheesed off at them enough to respond with a smug, pitying smile.
And why not? Just then he was an extraordinarily happy man, not least because of how the honeymoon sketch he'd done of Laura had gone over. She'd flushed as she studied it and then looked up at him with a wondering smile. "Do I really look like this?" she asked.
"Ah, no. It doesn't begin to do you justice. Perhaps when I've more experience, eh? After all, I'm only a novice. A mere dauber, really, an amateur-"
"Oh, stop. I get the picture. Pun intended." She'd tugged on his arm to bring his head down to her level and soundly kissed his cheek. "Thank you. And Mr. Steele?"
"I love you, too."
They had even more fun distracting Sergeants Kuhn and Tyone so Remington could phone Murphy with a request to research the probable relationship between Claudio Maltesta and Roselli—a conversation from which Remington rang off quickly, before Murphy could pose any questions about Laura. It was both an excellent joke on the guards, and a confidence booster for the Steeles. To mix a couple of metaphors, even with their wings clipped, they could still run rings around the competition.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere at the villa went downhill from there. Not a bit surprising, considering they were two active, energetic people with nothing to do. Enticing as the prospect might appear at first blush, one couldn't make love all the time. Or spend entire days reading, as Laura tried to do, or drawing, as he tried to do, or swimming, or sunning themselves. He grew touchy and snappish. She became restless and agitated. And, by the end of the second week, determined to take matters into her own hands.
"We've got to get out of here," she said sotto voce to Remington one afternoon. The sky was cloudless, the weather verging on summery; they were lounging by the pool while Vitale and Tedesco patrolled the villa's perimeter. "Otherwise I swear I'll go crazy."
"And I swear I'll join you. But I don't see how we're to manage it, in view of the odds against us." Remington inclined his head discreetly towards Vitale, whose military-issue weapon was prominently displayed—and ready to be used-in a holster suspended from his belt. "We may be armed, but I don't relish the idea of facing down trained soldiers. We'd be slaughtered, Laura. Literally."
"You're right." Laura turned thoughtful. "How do artifice and subterfuge strike you as alternatives?"
"Mother's milk, my dear. Who do you propose as the mark? Tyrone? He's a likely candidate."
"None of them. No messing around with the bottom of the chain of command. My sights are set on the top dog, Mr. Steele."
She meant Flannery, of course. As it happened he was scheduled to pay them a visit the following day. By then she'd cooked up a scheme so convincing, Flannery could hardly fail to be taken in. Physical fitness was very important to her, was what she would say. Was Flannery aware that she competed in marathons and triathlons? She needed the open road, fresh air in her lungs, the freedom to stretch her legs. Surely Flannery could understand that? And arrange something suitable? He could be the one to accompany her, if he was worried about her making a break for it.
"A trial run," she explained to Remington. "A chance to watch how he copes and pinpoint his weak spots so we can plan accordingly."
It worked. Two sentences in to her pitch, it was clear Flannery was hooked. Indeed, from Remington's vantage point Flannery was practically falling over himself to do Laura a service. "Give me a few days," he said. "I'm sure I can work something out."
For once he was as good as his word. Three days later he arrived in the black soutane and hat, and waited while Laura put the habit on over a tank top and shorts. Careful to preserve a façade of innocence, she avoided Remington's eyes, and offered him only a casual good-bye. But there was a brief flicker of her dimple as she passed him and followed Flannery out the front door and to his car.
The villa seemed rather empty and lifeless to Remington after they'd gone. Gilbert Trottier had gone to a neighbor's to inspect at a newborn litter of rat terriers, leaving the Peugeot behind. Of the men of the security detail, Khun and Tedesco were the most silent and stoical, and it was just Remington's sort of luck that they should be on duty today. The swimming pool wasn't nearly as attractive without Laura in her red bikini to adorn it. As a rule he didn't enjoy reading, and French television was a hopeless muddle.
But the moving image was a hard addiction to break. Besides, Canal + was showing a dubbed version of the American show 21 Jump Street. He took up his usual position—flat on his back on the sofa—and watched.
When the first gunshot rang out, he thought it was part of the show.
The noise of the second gunshot propelled him from his seat and into the center of the room.
How long he stood there, ears strained to their limits for a sound, any sound at all, he didn't know. Tedesco's voice or Kuhn's, footsteps ringing on the patio's flagstones, the meaty of thump of blows landed on the body of an intruder, even another gun shot? But the house and grounds were totally silent.
It was the unbearable suspense that sent him towards the window overlooking the rear of the house. Looking for Tedesco and Kuhn, he was. At first he thought—hoped-they were unconscious. But the way Khun's face was crushed into the grass, Tedesco's sightless eyes staring skyward and the quantity of blood told him otherwise.
He would've run then, but the villa's front door was already opening. Heavy footsteps were already advancing across the floor. The hammer of a Ruger (the same gun he'd identified upon Miles Helmsley's demand at Paddington Station a year ago, he remembered) was being cocked.
Stiff with dread, he turned.
And for the first time since the previous September came face to face with his doppelgänger, Anthony Roselli.
TO BE CONTINUED