A/N: Thank you so much for the comments and alerts. Especially now that I'm quite stuck with writing this, they mean a lot.
Also, thank you, Evelyn, if it's anywhere near good, it's because of you!;)
A/N#2: The quote is from the novel "Love in the time of cholera" by the great Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Chapter 15: Astray
Lisa spent two days in complete oblivion and stupor in her bed at her father's house. She retreated to her old pink room, full of the memories of someone who only looked like her. Full of memories of someone who looked like him. She had trouble to reconcile the man in these haunting, horrific memories with the man she'd just left behind to his fate.
This was the first time she set foot in the house ever since the flight.
The reason that it left her now crushed stood in blaring contrast with what it'd have been a few months earlier. Her father had repaired and put everything back in place, but he couldn't wipe them clean of the events that had uncoiled among these walls, the imprint they'd left behind. The doors, rooms, the creaks of the stairs. The floor where he'd fallen. Where she'd fallen. She could see their whole inglorious history embedded in every object around her, reminding her of their fight here. Reminding of how differently they parted now.
Reminding of how unlikely it was that they would ever meet again for a reason she wouldn't even want to think of.
She was lying in her old bed like a log, with just as much vigor in her, just as much life. She was shifting in and out of a state when nothing felt real, only the phantom pain of him in her heart. Her mind seemed to have shut down, nothing more than trifling impulses coming through her senses could scrape its surface, but none set root. Never before she'd felt it with such finality that she wouldn't ever be the same again. This room and her old life with their trophies and personal objects, the colors and smell and everything that once had been part of her life hadn't seemed so alien even after the rape. They were strangers: the girl who had once decorated this room, and the one who occupied the bed now.
She kept the stained sweater hugged to her, and the phone she'd talked to him on for the last time. Throughout the whole night, her eyes, hollow and scratching dry like she'd forgotten to blink for hours, were fixated on the screen, waiting for it to light up. She could hear his voice, the last lie, always the lie ringing in her ears, the lie that he would be all right, and the last truth: that it'd always been too late for them. In the darkest hours of her misery, in the longest, blackest hours of the night when dawn seems so far away and nonexistent, in a choking moment of despair Lisa dialed that number again, and though she knew it wouldn't connect, the mechanical, unfazed voice informing her about the number she'd dialed not being a working number made her chest convulse.
She wondered if they would still let him have it painlessly, for the sake of old times.
At the thought, Lisa drilled her face into the mattress, wishing she were at least half as stoic about it as he had appeared.
Her heart seemed a crumpled place with all the unsaid words, all the things she'd never experienced with him, all the things she'd never find out – sitting over the smithereens of lost chances, Lisa found herself bargaining again, but this time, not against the heart; this time she was willing to make a deal with the devil. Any deal. Give in to the senseless I-would's and if-I's, to irrational theories starting with the same words: If we had a second chance…
She couldn't cry, and that too engraved the ache deeper into her bones. Her tears had dried off during the drive from the airport, but she hadn't been aware of those tears, hadn't concentrated on loading them with the burden her heart couldn't take any longer. There had been no release in them. Now that she was craving for them, they wouldn't come.
The more she tried to suppress the thought of him and hide it from herself with the instinct of self-preservation, the more her mind mocked her by dragging it out during the shallow, disturbed naps she was able to take. She was dead tired, fatigue hung from her shoulders like a second skin.
Then the second night- or maybe it was morning; hard to tell with the blinds pulled down, with her metabolism on hold- Lisa dreamt of him again, dreamt of losing him, and woke up with the irrevocable feeling that she couldn't go on anymore. Sitting there, shot upright, it took her a full heart-churning minute to realize the tears returned. And she cried then, putting her heart in it, her hopes and ridiculously sick wishes that died young, shoving in her grief, too large for her body. Through the tears, the hiccups, the gasps for air, she tried to ride it out. His memory. The idea that she, for the rest of her life, was destined to forever compare every man she might meet to someone she never had.
Her father was worried sick but gave her enough space and time for which Lisa was grateful albeit it inflated her desolation further. All she was able to do was assuring her father that he hadn't hurt her, hadn't touched her – how ironic that the latter was the same thing that gripped her heart with shameful sorrow.
She couldn't talk about it with her father. With anyone, for that matter. It felt the same like after the attack in the parking lot when she'd kept the shame to herself, unable to match words to it. That time her body had been raped. Now it felt her heart was.
She immediately dismissed the thought. It was untrue, unfair to him. She, on her own volition, handed it over to him.
The third day she remembered Keefe, and suddenly Lisa didn't want anything more than to speak to him and be in the DHS complex, at the place where he had been just three days earlier, to know what and how things had happened, the little details she hadn't had the part in.
In her old purse they'd found among the debris of the FBI Field Office in Miami- the same debris where you met him for the second time, her mind interjected- and delivered to her father, Lisa found her mobile with the necessary contact details, and called the politician. She inquired if the job offer was still open, and when she was assured that they were still counting on her, Lisa started to arrange the move to Washington, much to her father's dismay.
Not a day after her phone call with Keefe, agent Alvarez got in contact with her, asking politely but with the kind of authority no one should ignore, if she would visit him at the Field Office to give her statement. Lisa, to get over and done with it preferably sooner than later, didn't hesitate for too long. She tried to give as precise details about the events at the warehouse as she was able to recall around the painful constriction of her heart.
As it turned out, this was the easier part of the task.
Alvarez wanted to know why she hadn't tried to escape, why she wasn't physically abused during the month of her abduction. She gave, to her own ears, an implausible babble about their truce, how she'd become convinced about the secret agreement with Keefe – though it was the truth, somehow it pained her to paint a false picture of him just so Alvarez wouldn't suspect she had feelings for someone she shouldn't. She refused to give any explanation on why he ran to help her at the warehouse beyond a tight-throat remark that he'd promised her she wouldn't be hurt, and that he was a man of his word. She couldn't come up with a better answer even for herself, to begin with. Lisa was positive that Alvarez either didn't believe her, or- if she was lucky- deemed her pitifully naïve and idealistic.
It was a horrible day.
From the FBI office, she went back to her old apartment with the loaded and taped close cardboard boxes littering the rooms, with her furniture wrapped up in plastic foil, and she lay on the bare floor, wondering when the world had lost its colors, when she had, like an old clock, lost a cogwheel within her.
At the beginning of the following week, with about a month delay compared to the original plan, she could finally start her employment as Charles Keefe's personal assistant at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington.
Lisa was secretly relieved to be out of Miami and, in a way, under the protection of the DHS, in case they decided she was considered a threat and had to be taken out, no matter what agreement they might have entered into. She could only hope they would leave her family out of the picture.
Janine, Keefe's previous assistant, now with a considerably more protruding belly, had been forced to stay on board while Lisa was missing.
Engaging in the challenges of her new job contributed to the old and working receipt Lisa had long since learned to thrive on, but never before had it felt so wrong and forced and fake.
During their long initial discussion with Keefe, he apologized for the unsavory deal he'd agreed to, just like he'd done back then at the FBI office before everything started. That moment the world turned unbearably absurd for Lisa: everything seemed to move on as if the past one month had never really existed, though it'd shaped her life so effectively that it got almost disfigured. Keefe had no idea there was nothing she expected him to apologize for. He clearly misinterpreted her haggard face, the undeniable signs of fatigue, presumably attributing them to the predicament she'd gone through. Lisa, understandably, didn't hurry to correct him.
The investigation in Martin Carter's case was kept a secret as much as it was possible amid the thousands of off the wall rumors and media coverage the Military Advisor's arrest evoked. Keefe was very busy those days, being continuously in touch with the FBI and Alvarez. Though Lisa had access to many secret documents, as much as she tried to get information on this particular topic, she ran into brick walls. Somehow it left her frustrated. She considered this case as his legacy, and like everything that was as much as remotely connected to him, became an item on her wish list, something to be collected.
Her new colleagues greeted her with stating how lucky she was to have gotten out of that ordeal alive. They all expressed that it had to be horrifying to be kidnapped by a criminal, and Lisa just nodded assent, letting them believe whatever they wanted to. She didn't trust her own voice, she was afraid she would put too much passion in her words, defensive words. Defensive of her. Defensive of him. So she just left it at that.
It came back kicking her in the stomach when, after two weeks of emotional void that tossed her into constant dullness, Keefe's Public Affairs' secretary, overzealous, too eager to please, brought her the news of the day with a bleary smile.
"You heard it? They just found a body near Baltimore. They think it's Rippner."
Lisa, with a deadly calm face, stared at him. In the whirlwind of these words, she briefly wondered when exactly she managed to develop her professional mask into perfection; she also mused if she had actually become like him. Something in the past weeks stopped functioning in her, something that should normally connect her brain with her heart.
The man, Baker, shrugged. "The remnants are pretty damaged. They found it under a layer of cement, the usual scenario. Seems he was shot in the leg first, then also in the head. Three times." His little interjected laugh hit Lisa as one of the most grotesque things recently. "One was more than enough of that bullet to kill him. Big chunk of the head went missing. A rifle maybe, or something similar in power. Pretty nasty death if you ask me. He must've been a really unpopular guy."
Lisa felt an automat switch on within her, like an emergency mode she'd had no knowledge about, and as she'd seen it in the movies several times, Lisa managed with a level-headed tone. "They need me to identify the body?"
Again that laugh, the grotesque one, rattling like an empty can against the pavement. "I don't think you could. Not necessary, no. They're going to conduct a DNA test and see if it matches."
"Okay," she nodded approvingly. The emergency mode was faltering, she could feel it slip, shatter. Lisa smoothed down the nonexistent wrinkles of her suit, trying to smooth her jumbled nerves too. Her head was reeling, throbbing. Run. Run… run… run. She prompted. "Is the agenda for the press conference done yet? Keefe has to check it latest today."
"Not yet complete. Still need an hour."
Steadily, she emphasized its urgency. "Send me when it's done."
Lisa left him standing there, and dashed down the corridor. The restroom was empty as it usually was at lunch time.
Suddenly her body seemed too tight, too many things clattered in her, and she wanted to get rid of at least a part of it. Staggering to the nearest stall, she snapped the buttons on her jacket open, trying to inhale deeply. Inside, fallen on her knees, she leant over the toilet and retched, trying to throw up the pain, the elemental feeling of loss but nothing got past her throat. The greatest misery was always the hardest to subdue.
"Oh my God," she creaked miserably. The plain tiles echoed it, doubling, tripling her shock.
Half a head missing.
She choked on dry tears. It was so surreal. The man she loved, the man who could kiss her a way no one had been able to for a very long time… if ever…
She couldn't process the thought, and it bashed her into a numb state.
It felt like it came out of nowhere, though the news was anything but surprising after the events at the warehouse. Ever since she'd left him there, sitting in his own blood, she recognized that he had finally miscalculated his steps. A flaw in the plans. He had surely planned it otherwise, with a different end for himself, but the company was quicker, smarter this time, and he couldn't fool them. He was a human being, after all – the thought crushed her now; the thought that, apart from her, there were other people, dangerous people who could outmaneuver him; that he wasn't all-powerful.
Heaving heavily, she rested her forehead on her arms.
Somehow it felt now she'd lost him for the second time.
Everything had grown slow lately, and silent.
Lisa turned off the engine. The low hum of the motor was replaced by the drumming of raindrops against the windshield, and she stared out at the sad scene, the grey curtain between her and the rest of the world. During the one month, he'd given her something she hadn't known before or had lost in the traumatic experience of the rape, and when she accustomed to it, he'd taken it back in the end.
She looked over at her building. What was the point in going in, taking a shower, eating leftovers, then going to bed and waking up the next day again like nothing had happened?
She wanted to go somewhere, anywhere where…
Her train of thoughts stumbled to a halt. Where? Why? It wasn't like she could unload her problems and flee. It wasn't like she could detach herself from the feeling that rattled in her without a place, without a subject, and in its rattling shattered everything else it knocked against. A line from a book popped up in her mind. "The time had come to ask herself with dignity, with majesty, with an irrepressible desire to live, what she should do with the love that had been left behind without a master."
Suddenly it made terrible sense to her. He was gone, but he didn't bring this with him, and she had nowhere to go without pulling it after her on elastic rope, always dragging her heart, dragging her love wherever she would go.
Ironically, now that she wanted to shut out all news about the dead body, Lisa found herself forced to take part in the events. It wasn't later than next day that after a meeting, Keefe asked her to stay in his office for a few minutes. As she sank into the chair on the other side of his desk, she knew it couldn't be about anything else but the dead body.
Somewhere in the back of her mind where she regarded herself with brutal honesty, Lisa recognized her complete reluctance to connect the body with him.
"I'm sure you've already heard the news about the corpse they found." Keefe opened a folder, pulling out a paper that looked like a snapshot from where she was sitting. "I'd like you to take a look at it."
Lisa had jumped to her feet before she knew it. "No. I…" she swallowed around the wild throbbing of her heart that had crept up her throat. "I don't want to identify it."
"You don't have to. Actually, you wouldn't be able to," Keefe smiled at her weakly, with polite assurance. "There are no disfigured body parts on the picture. It's nothing too horrific. Please, take a seat, Lisa."
She plopped back into the chair. The picture Keefe pushed toward her was a close-up of the mid-part of a body, a large-scale enlargement that showed the area from knees to the abdomen.
"I could recognize the clothes, that's all. But it doesn't mean too much," Keefe said.
Lisa leant over the picture, resting her forehead in her palms as she placed her elbows on the desk. She remembered those clothes. Remembered when he stood there all dressed up that morning; their last morning. One hand could be seen beside the body. It was balled into a fist, and her heart clenched at the idea how great pain could cause that. She had to blink back the tears that suddenly threatened to swarm her eyes. She remembered the watch, too. Actually, Keefe wasn't right. She would have been able to identify his body from merely looking at his hand, at his nails, round and very male, the creases of his knuckles, the ginger hair creeping up to the back of his hand, the spots where the dog had bitten him. She stooped closer. The blowup was a bit blurry, the skin dirty and spotted with blobs of cement. Lisa wished she had a magnifying lens to see the bite marks. Or rather, on second thought, she was grateful she didn't have it.
"You see something?"
"The Longines," she forced out, not feeling confident about telling Keefe how much she knew his hands. It would sound more than suspicious.
All Lisa could do was nod.
"Could you please recall where exactly he was shot in the leg?"
Lisa swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry as she was forced to remember a day she wanted to forget the most. She pressed her eyes shut, keeping the tears at bay. It was easy to recall: she lightly touched him there, stealing a few drops of his blood with the sleeve of the sweater she still kept under her bed like a morbid talisman.
"The same place," she mumbled after a short glance at the picture. "The dark blur on the right leg. That was it."
Keefe pulled the picture away from her and placed it back in the folder. "Thank you, Lisa, I really appreciate it. There's not much we can do at this point. Soon the result of the DNA test will be available and it will clarify a lot of things."
Keefe was right. The results arrived two days later. And they did clarify a lot of things.
"Yes?" asked the intent male voice on the other end of the line.
Checking if the door to his study was properly closed, Michele answered. "I thought you might be pleased to hear that Jackson Rippner was declared dead yesterday."
"Oh." Weightless silence, maybe of relief or surprise, but definitely of satisfaction, lingered in the air.
"They found him in a construction area near Baltimore five days ago. A few well-placed bullets in the head, just as expected."
"Want me to send the pictures?"
"A real mess, believe me… A masterpiece of the Cleaner." Clearing his throat, Michele remarked with a hint of emphasis. "Finally, it's over now."
Paper rustling could be heard as on the other end of the line a FedEx folder was opened, and two A4 pictures fell out. The woman in them looked composed, apathetic. But for those who could see through even the meticulously built fronts, it was obvious she was hiding something. Both pictures were close-ups, showing her getting into a black Toyota on a particularly windy day. The second had her turned toward the camera, and one look in her eyes betrayed her. It was clear she was miserable.
The satisfied smile was apparent even through the slight static of the line. "Maybe, maybe not. I'm checking your mail right now. I see, you have everything, address, daily routines. Truly satisfactory."
Not really referring to the remark, Michele frowned. "I don't think it's a good idea."
"Good thing I don't ask for your approval."
The haughty tone clients usually used, and it made Michele roughly rub his temple. He had to be weather-sensitive; that, or these dealings were giving him a headache.
"The company won't be pleased. If I am not mistaken, there was an agreement-"
"I don't care about any agreements."
"She should be left alone. I don't think there's any point-" Michele argued but was cut short.
"There is. She's too close to the wrong company. One careless word, one too many questions in the wrong place… sooner or later it gets, she gets dangerous."
"It's like stirring up a hornet's nest which is the Keefe case."
"No, it's tying up loose ends."
Irritated by the fact that it was like talking to walls, Michele commented. "She isn't a loose end anymore."
"That's what I have to find out."
First she didn't spot the envelope. She almost stepped on it on her way to the living room.
It had been a very long Monday, she was sleepy and fatigued, just like in the previous three weeks. The light fixture in her tiny hall didn't work. She had asked the janitor to fix it but so far there was no progress in that matter, so she usually went for the one in the living room. The mid-December sun had long set, and the streetlamps outside couldn't illuminate the apartment properly.
She halted in the entrance to the living room, and stared into the semi-darkness before her. She was no more than two steps from the light switch, and it seemed a very long distance now, when two different things made a meteor-heavy fall in her mind. As she bent down for the small, thick, nondescript envelope that had no address written on it, she realized it had been lying a few steps away from the entrance, and there was no way someone could slip it in under the door so far.
In the exact same moment, she sensed it. Another presence in the apartment. It was a lingering sensation, something akin to feeling the prickle of someone's gaze at the back of the head. It made her hair stand on end.
Lisa took a step back, held her breath. Her heart raced ten times faster than her thoughts. She tried to fight the not so paranoid idea: whoever had placed the envelope on the floor was still there. Her fingers clawed around the thick paper cover so vehemently that her nails tore it open. Slowly, keeping her eyes on the ink-blue frame of the windowpane opposite her, Lisa pulled the contents out. In the dark, she was able to determine that it was a stack of stiff papers. Her free hand reached out toward the short chest she kept her shoes in, trying to find something she could use as a weapon. Keys, fly papers of pizza delivery, gloves. Nothing useful. The instinct to run was so strong that her knees seemed to wobble.
She took another step backwards.
Then let out a muffled cry when a sudden noise erupted behind her.
She swirled around in panic. It took three horrific seconds to realize that someone had knocked on the door. In a rush of relief that she wasn't alone anymore, Lisa tore the door open – the gut-wrenching realization that she hadn't checked who was on the other side came to her only belatedly.
Fluorescent light poured in, making her furiously blink against it. She focused her gaze, and let out a relieved sigh.
It was Mrs. Higgins, the old lady whose apartment was opposite her on the other side of the narrow landing.
"Lisa, my dear, I just heard you arrived home," she gave a wrinkled smile to her. Lisa's was trembling around the corners.
Heard… or rather, saw, she thought wryly. The old woman had the bad habit of standing before the peephole for hours, checking on the people who happened to go by on the other side of her door.
"Yes, I did." Lisa clutched at the doorframe, fighting the urge to look behind her back. Mrs. Higgins had no such intention, as she stared with a puzzled expression in her apartment.
"Why's it so dark in there?"
"There's a problem with the light in the hall. I've already told Mr. Novak, but he's yet to come and fix it."
"I'll tell Adam to haul his old limbs up here and check it."
Lisa smiled thankfully though somewhat shakily. Mr. Novak and Mrs. Higgins were in good terms; Lisa considered them as part of the fixed assets of the apartment building, considering they had been living here long before she was even born.
This was when Lisa remembered the package of paper she was still keeping a firm hold around. She gave it a stealthy glance, and her stomach dropped.
It was her personal travelogue of postcards she'd picked up from places they'd touched during their journey. She remembered she'd kept the stack in the leather bag the men, who'd hurled her from the motel, took with them in an attempt to clean everything off their trace. She turned the cards. There was no note, not a single word attached to or scribbled on them. She looked at the one on the top, and she felt like crying. A black and white postcard of Frederick, Maryland, the last station of the journey. The place where he kissed her. The place where he left her. She remembered picking it up on her way back to the motel after lunch – just before she was abducted. It seemed so unreal now.
She stroked the edges of the postcards delicately, almost affectionately. How and why did they end up on her floor?
Her heart, hibernated in the previous weeks, now thumped wildly in her chest. It couldn't be interpreted any other way than a warning: we know who you are; we are coming.
"Lisa, dear? Are you all right?"
Her head perched up, and Lisa blinked at the old woman in mild bewilderment. "Yes, sorry. It's been a long day."
The ominous silence and darkness behind her back were growing increasingly heavy by the second. Her mind raced. Maybe this was her chance to ask for help. Mrs. Higgins would be more than happy for the first-hand adventure that could feed the rumor-channel for at least a week.
"I just wanted to come and see if everything was alright."
Alarmed, Lisa asked. "Why do you ask?"
"There've been a few strangers lurking around here in the last couple of days."
"Strangers?" she echoed hollowly. Mrs. Higgins flooded her with her old woman smell as she leant closer in a conspiratorial manner.
"Yes. Just last Tuesday, I happened to see a man coming up here and standing before your door for a few good minutes. He had a very suspicious face, if you ask me. The dictionary definition of criminal. I was really worried that night. I put a chair against the door from the inside. You know, to hear if an intruder tried to get in."
"I don't know who it was," Lisa mumbled half to herself.
"No wonder, my dear, I don't think you know such people." Mrs. Higgins' voice turned into a whisper. "And just today. There was another man. I was about to walk Crunchy when I saw him standing by your door. I asked him flat out what he wanted. He made Crunchy very nervous. You know how he gets all worked up by strangers."
Lisa bit back a moan. Crunchy was Mrs. Higgins' annoying little Yorkshire terrier who barked even if a mosquito happened to fly by. "And what did he say?"
"He said her was searching for the Fischers."
"Oh," Lisa breathed, releasing a small smile. "Probably he's just missed the floor. The Fischers are living one floor above us."
"Probably," the old woman concluded with a frown that told Lisa otherwise.
Lisa risked a glance in her apartment, trying to make out if anything was out of place, but what she could see appeared normal and untouched, and there was nobody in the part of the living room the light in the landing could illuminate. Lisa shortly pondered if she should get her mobile from her bag she'd left on a chair in the hall, and call the police.
"Are you going home for the holidays?"
"Yes, yes, I'm planning to," Lisa answered somewhat distractedly. "My flight in scheduled for Saturday."
"That's a perfect timing. I'm baking gingerbread on Friday. I'll bring you a box. I like them the best when freshly baked."
"Thank you, Mrs. Higgins, but really, it's not necessary."
There was a roll of barks resounding in the landing, and the old lady hurriedly scuffled toward her door, leaving a pretty disturbed Lisa frozen to the threshold in fearful anticipation.
"I can't make Crunchy wait too long. Talk to you later, dear." And with that, she disappeared in her apartment.
Slowly, Lisa turned toward hers. Numbly, she closed the door and leant against it. The feeling was akin to stepping in a lion's lair. The least she could do was not putting the safety chain in place.
Was this a coincidence, these strangers around her apartment, or the product of an old, crotchety hag's imagination in override? Was this really a warning, a threat? A reminder that they knew where she was? That they were keeping an eye on her? That they would eventually come and get her?
The fact that someone had intruded her apartment and left her the travelogue that was last in the possession of people who were responsible for the assassination attempt on Keefe's life, the people who made a meek promise to leave her alone, gave her every right to call the police. She should have, she knew it, but the chance that it was only a warning and she was alone now made her hesitate. After all, why leaving the travelogue to alarm her, if they were here to kill her right away?
Lisa groaned inwardly. The last thing she needed right now was making a fool out of herself in front of the police, the neighbors, and, she had no doubt it would spread that far, in front of Keefe's whole department.
And still, as she reached the doorway between the hall and the living room, more than any time before, she could feel someone watching her. She placed the travelogue on the chest, and groped about for the umbrella she kept hanging above it. Behind the half-drawn curtains, the distorted rectangle of the window was now a shade deeper blue as it grew darker outside. Lisa frowned. She was almost sure that she'd opened the curtains fully in the morning. She usually did.
There, in the thick darkness in the corner, the shadows seemed to gather into a misshapen form, maybe a human body, and Lisa strained her eyes. From that spot, an- imagined or real- stare was burning a hole into her.
Lisa inhaled deeply, then exhaled silently. An unidentified feeling surged through her, unexpectedly soothing the quivers of her stomach.
Her hand reached toward the switch, and she flicked it. The momentary blindness lasted for only a fraction of a second, and she stared, with slightly burning eyes, at the spot where just a minute earlier she'd visualized someone hiding.
It was only her standing lamp, nothing else.
A nervous laugh started to emerge in her chest as she stood there, confused.
Lisa jumped at the sudden voice, and whirled to the right toward its source, briefly acknowledging how her heart had just stopped beating – not out of dread though, but mind-numbing disbelief. This voice could not be mistaken, not even if its appearance here went against everything rational and sound and plausible.
Among many other things at the moment, it surprised, even angered her how close he'd been able to creep without her noticing it. He was standing not more than three steps away from her, casually leaning against the wall.
Incredulity wrapped around her tightly, squeezing the air out of her. Squeezing all thoughts out, too.
Jackson. Her heart jostled around in her chest at the sight of him.
He's alive, her mind concluded the obvious.
Her body shuddered with the almost irrepressible urge to hug him, but she was frozen to the spot, washed away by a tidal wave of different emotions. It drowned her; she gulped for air, unable to differentiate one feeling from the other.
But more than anything else, she felt cheated. Somehow, in that minute, the utter misery of the previous weeks, every teardrop and every nightmare seemed ridiculous and fake, his appearance here was somehow mocking them.
"Hi, Leese," he said with an easy smile that was bordering on gentle and arrogant – he'd always been the master of that. Lisa, in her utter shock, fancied the smirk concealed razor-sharp awareness, and was a bit wolfish, too. "Would've thought you had a better security system. After all the things you've been through."
Lisa wanted to retort but her tongue was bound.
He was alive, and funnily, what should have made her overjoyed, ended up being the reason for her reluctance to pick up everything just where they'd left it. People didn't usually return from death. Lisa was cautious and suspicious enough to understand there was more to the whole flow of events than she'd ever suspected. The air of deception was lingering around him. Also, she was too sober to assume he showed up here only because he'd wanted to see her. Sentimentalism had never been the word to describe him.
His clear, unwavering gaze dropped to her hand, and he smirked, not without the hint of irony.
"So this time it's an umbrella? How original."
The sarcastic reminder about the object she was still gripping served as a wake-up signal, and Lisa, fueled with the adrenaline still galloping in her limbs, the dread that hadn't been released, and a bitter revenge she didn't have an explanation on, swung the umbrella, aiming at his head. She was satisfied that it apparently took him completely by surprise – it wasn't only him who could achieve that. Thanks to his sharp reflexes, in the very last moment he blocked the hit with his forearm.
She remarked haughtily, though her head was still reeling after the heavy jolt of relief and shock, "I could beat you with it anytime, Jackson."
He grabbed the umbrella, and with a rough pull, he jerked her closer to him. His free hand pinched her chin as he drawled with a slight grin. "I was starting to think the cat got your tongue, Leese."
Lisa studied him through the thick fog that suddenly seeped in her mind at his proximity. Now that she stood so close to him, and his scent engulfed her and wrapped her mind softly, Lisa realized her subconscious had recognized it lingering in the room, and it'd given her that unexpected feeling of calmness a few minutes earlier – all those weeks beside him, it somehow became a part of her, like her own scent: a feel of familiarity, security.
But it could easily be deceiving. With him, many things usually were.
His fingers against her chin were firm but soft, leaving a blazing hot spot behind. For a moment he looked almost timidly gentle before the self-assured smirk returned on his face.
"You know, I bet you could beat me with this umbrella. The question is: would you do it?"
Lisa frowned with sudden resentment at the cocky, utterly confident gleam on his face. "If it is necessary. Tell me, is it necessary now, Jackson?"
He didn't answer. There was a falter in his manner, like a power cut during transmission, a moment of uncertainty – maybe a moment of second-guessing. He tossed his head back and gave her a penetrating glance from under half-closed lids; the long lashes cast a shadow on his eyes, obscuring them. She hated when he looked at her like that, with calculating, cold objectivity. From behind a banister of superiority. She couldn't decide if it was act now or he was a threat on her.
Lisa took a step back, a casual one as if by putting space between them, she could distance herself from the situation and look at it with clear head.
Her stomach constricted with bitter worry. Was the Keefe case still an unfinished job for him?
"Why are you here?" she demanded steadily.
Jackson let out a short laugh that was clapping among the walls harshly. The glare he was giving her was steely. "What a warm welcome!"
Squaring her shoulders, Lisa stated. "Just what an intruder deserves, I guess."
He closed the distance she'd just put between them in an instant, and Lisa flexed her muscles to keep her body in place. There was a line, a chisel-engraved hard line just beside his nose Lisa always identified with his unpredictable temper; like a blinking red warning light, it always made her shrink away from him.
Jackson leant close to her, easily, naturally invading her personal space.
He observed her crossly. His smile was strange, deformed – he still wasn't conscious of what exactly distorted it. Sometime in the previous weeks- in his constant double-checking with reality while trying to prove himself right in things he didn't really want to be right, dissuading himself from pursuing something that didn't fit with anything he'd grown used to-, he'd become like a sick, rabid dog that retches up its guts' contents and wallows in its own dirt. He leant to her ear, hating her for the almost imperceptible undulation of her shoulders, the slight quiver of her body – hating himself for stimulating it. This was, too, one of those things that could easily be labeled as self-torture – when he stabbed her, with that move, he stabbed himself twice as hard.
"Oh, you're afraid of me, aren't you, Leese?"
Lisa glared at him from the top of her eyes. His voice was the devil's hiss, soft as a whisper and vile. The words tickled her skin and her nerves, too. Jabbing her fingers in his chest, she pushed him away.
"Should I, Jackson?"
"You tell me."
Lisa scrutinized his face anxiously, followed the lines she fancied she knew better than anyone in this world. On a certain level, it was not possible anymore to face him with the old bone-freezing fear, but something in his manner was still very much disconcerting.
His gaze was guarded, veiled – never before had it hurt her more than now.
Now that he'd changed her, but obviously he hadn't changed himself. It let Lisa think yet again that the world had moved on, only she was still standing there, stuck in her own fantasy land. It forced her to ask the question if she'd been sentimental and foolish again, attaching too many emotion-driven wishes to something that had never been meant to be more than what it was: a moment of unleashed physical need – he'd kissed her because he felt like so, not because on a mysterious, sentimental level they'd connected. She'd been told many times that men worked in a very simple way; there was no need for combinatory theories about their acts.
Slipping out of the cage-like space he left for her between his body and the wall, Lisa sauntered a few steps away from him with her back turned – the simple act required more bravery than it was natural, and she lamented the old easiness she'd gained around him during their journey and now seemed to have lost in the previous minutes. His silence was, more than anything else, unsettling.
Jackson didn't move from the wall. Lisa placed the umbrella on the coffee table. She slipped out of her shoes, slowly shrugged out of her coat. The silence between them was almost formal as Jackson studied her, and Lisa studied him in return. For the first time since he'd showed up here, she let her eyes roam his form. He looked almost the same, only his hair was shorter in his forehead, neatly cropped in the back, with the part moved in the middle. Also, she had the inkling it was one shade or two darker than she remembered – or probably only his skin had picked up a fair, unhealthy tone.
There was a strange smile tugging at the corner of his lips Lisa had trouble to interpret. Something shifted in the atmosphere around them, and with her usual intuition, she sensed the undesired animosity draining, but it left a muddy, sticky substance behind.
"Nice to see you," she announced with a measured tone, not without the hint of accusation she wasn't even aware of.
Something clouded his face for a moment, then a blink of uncertainty in his eyes as he nodded. "Thank you."
She didn't ask stupid questions, naïve questions, questions she'd have asked a few months back, as to how he could find her, if he'd been following her again, how he could get in. She didn't mention either that she thought he was dead. They were far beyond being so clichéd.
Jackson pushed himself away from the wall, and started a slow circle in the living room, glancing around with the polite interest of someone in an art gallery. Lisa, in a matter of a split second, easily caught the slight, almost imperceptible limp in his gait.
"How's your leg?"
With a soft smile, he squinted at her. "Better, thank you. The bullet didn't reach the bone, but I won't be jogging anytime soon."
He stroked a finger along the windowsill like he was checking if it was dusty. He cleared his throat.
"To be honest, your apartment surprised me. It is pretty impersonal. Very Spartan."
Lisa looked around as if it was the first time she realized the same. A considerable stack of closed cardboard boxes was still piled against the far wall of the living room, and she knew the bedroom looked even worse. She'd opened only the boxes with her clothes and necessities, for practical reasons. Except for a few plates and mugs, the kitchen was empty. This was the first time she realized the apartment looked more like a crypt.
"I haven't unpacked everything yet."
Jackson examined her from the other side of the room. He was outside of the meager glow of the track lights on the ceiling. The ghostly street lights smeared a blue highlight over his jawline as he stood with his back against the window. Lisa felt herself trembling, as if struck by a wave of aftershock, completely overtaken by his mere presence. She tried to make her eyes get used to him standing among these walls. She ran her gaze along his figure, the crisp dress shirt and tailor-made suit pants, his hands in his pockets – the manager-attire, manager-posture. Was this the same man she'd been mourning? The same she'd kissed?
Or the same she'd feared?
He cocked his head, lifting his unusual gaze at her face. "And why's that? Don't feel at home?"
Lisa hugged herself. Of course. This was the same man who knew her better than anyone. Probably even better than she knew herself.
She hadn't been able to find her way home for quite some time now.
"Maybe," she replied, not keen on elaborating any further right now. She leant against the back of the couch between them – maybe for support, maybe to barricade herself from the complicated feelings he was evoking in her again.
"I have to apologize but had to go through your stuff. Federal departments have the bad habit of keeping close eye on their employees."
"Oh, they do, too?" her tone was less biting than intended. She nipped her lower lip bitterly. "And?"
"And either Keefe's a decent guy or you're above all suspicion." As an afterthought, Jackson added with a skew smirk. "I'd vote for the second."
If it was a relief, she didn't show it.
"What happened, Jackson?"
He laughed, though Lisa could tell, not without tension. "Oh, all business immediately. Where's my people-pleaser Lisa? You haven't even asked if I was thirsty."
"You really think you can play this game with me?" Lisa sighed. "You didn't come here to mock me."
Almost solemnly, he admitted. "No, I didn't. And I'm not playing games either."
Suddenly, he skirted the couch and stepped to her. With the back of his fingers, he stroked her face, eyes intent on hers, losing any edge it might have held before. She'd never suspected she would miss his unsettling scrutiny, but right now his glance gave her the feel of home more than any items in the apartment could achieve.
"I'm not here to hurt you. You know that, right?"
He was familiar now, and excitingly close. In a second, he'd transformed back into the man who could wash away all her coherent thoughts by a simple hug. She couldn't attach ill thoughts to this side of him. Not when he looked at her like that, with so much caress melting the wintry blue of his eyes; with the faint hurt in his voice that was almost impossible to catch.
"Yes, I know," she mumbled.
The smile on his lips was feeble but honest. His fingertips glided down on the edge of her jaw, and back up again.
"You look tired."
"I am tired," Lisa whispered. Her gaze was deep, feverish. Her skin was burning where he'd just touched her.
Lisa placed a palm on his chest, in an uncertain manner to feel his heart. It was beating in synch with hers. Her hand skimmed down, and she hesitantly fumbled with his shirt at the waistline, as if trying to convince herself that she was allowed to hug him; then with a swift motion, she slipped into his arms. She buried her face in his shirt. It was him, really him, the same scent, same warmth, same feel her body couldn't seem to forget. Just now, when she hugged him, did she let herself believe he really was there.
"That makes two of us," he murmured against her hair, closing her in his embrace. "I'm drained."
Or rather he'd been up to this moment. Now standing in her apartment, with her nose pressed against the scar on his neck, he felt everything but. Her scent soothed him in a way he'd never expected. Her fingers ran their usual, old course on his back, inflicting slowly gurgling desire in the pit of his stomach.
Lisa lifted her head, brushing the bridge of her nose along his throat. She followed the same path with her lips, just lightly, timidly, as if by accident. She exhaled against the tiny freckles on his neck, and smiled against them as he gulped. She wanted to kiss him, but wasn't sure if she could. If she should, to begin with.
Leaning away as much as he let her, she looked in his eyes. "Are you… are we in danger?"
Jackson stared back at her incredulously, and once again, his gaze was open. "You think I'd be here if I was? You think I'd endanger you?"
There was no answer to that, no answer to his glare but a smile that spread more in her chest than on her face. The world had turned upside down but it felt more right than ever before.
Lisa hid in his arms and didn't ask anything, because with infallible inkling she felt she wouldn't like whatever he had to say.
Without words, everything was peaceful and simple.