mens rea


He'd only just opened the door, hadn't yet turned on a light, when the voice addressed him from somewhere in the darkened office beyond.

"There's something going on, Josef. I know. With Beth."

There was a click and a cool light glowed from the Eames lamp on his desk - and there he was, just as Josef had always known one day that he would be. Mick St John - come to send him straight to hell.

Shame tingled along Josef's spine and a part of him, a small part, wondered if he could avoid his fate the way he had so many times in his long and sin-filled life before. It wouldn't take much. He could step back right now and close his office door before Mick could speak again. He could walk away; disappear, never, ever to return. Stay and face the shame - go and lose both of those he loved forever. Either one was far too bitter a choice for him to make so he stood mannequin still, skewered to the spot by Mick's glare. The part of him that didn't want to face his dishonor felt an urge to voice one of the dozen smooth explanations he'd been practicing for the past year and a half, but fifty years of waiting for Sarah to either wake or die had taught him that fate couldn't be cheated forever. He raised his chin and met Mick's gaze properly for the first time. He'd known what he and Beth were doing was wrong - Mick deserved his pound of flesh. Josef stepped into the office and closed the door behind him.

Mick's eyes raked over him with contempt and Josef watched as his old friend began to pace, running a hand through his hair, turning on his heel to regard Josef from under lowered brows, blowing out a fevered breath only to turn on his heel again, jaw clenched, his palms open in beseech.

"Why, Josef? Why?"

Josef's lips twisted. What could he possibly say? He'd asked himself the same question a million times over. He just didn't have an answer. He would have given anything not to have fallen for Mick's woman, but he had, fallen hard, and now he was in love. Helpless.

Mick continued to pace, the pain on his face terrible. Josef knew with certainty that he had lost his old friend forever.

And Beth?

When it came to love, it seemed that the only thing the Universe was interested in was even-ing out the scorecard where he was concerned. Beth had made it clear in the beginning that she would never leave Mick and nothing she'd said since made him believe she had changed her mind in any way.

He took a chance and looked straight into Mick's eyes. The rims were red and an edge of hysteria gleamed from his friend's normally calm grey irises. The sharp point of a silver dagger between his ribs, that, Josef had been prepared for - it's what he would have done in the circumstances. But this? Watching his best friend fall apart in front of him and knowing he was the one to blame was causing him actual physical pain. He'd never seen Mick look this concerned.

Wait… concern. Not anger - apprehension. Mick was worried. Worried.

Josef's mind finally kicked into gear and he took a surreptitious breath. He was right, this wasn't the righteous fury of a wronged partner, this was anxiety. Josef almost sagged with relief. A light winked on behind his eyes. He'd deal with this the way he always had. He slipped a hand into a pocket and infused his next words with as much sarcasm as he could muster.

"Oh, goody, charades! And here I was thinking it was going to be just one more make-another-million-on-the-market kind of day."

He smirked, but felt the unfamiliar sensation of the skin crawling between his shoulder blades as he strode past Mick and sat down behind his desk. He questioned Mick with the usual impudent raise of his eyebrows.

"There's something wrong with Beth," Mick said.

The name twisted in Josef's gut and he winced.

"I know this is small stuff to you Josef," Mick fumed, misunderstanding the expression on Josef's face. "What happens to Beth doesn't matter to you, but you know how important she is to me."

So Mick had staked him after all.

Josef's hands trembled and he pressed his fingertips together with crushing force to still the shakes. "Then why don't you go ahead and tell Uncle Josef, Mick," he said.

It poured out at a breathless pace. "Beth's distracted all the time, she's preoccupied. I have to repeat things constantly, I mean, she's lost the remote to my loft twice in the past two months and her flash drive, and let me tell you, that thing's more precious to her than I am. I don't know how to explain it. I can hardly get a smile out of her these days, it's like she doesn't want to look at me, and she's tired all the time. She either goes to bed as soon as she gets home or drinks coffee all night and works till dawn. And when we do have sex…," he stopped, shook his head, looked off at nothing in the distance. "Josef, I think Beth's getting sick."

Josef shuddered, grateful that Mick had stopped when he had. Keeping the images of Mick's hands on Beth out of his mind was hard enough of at the best of times, but to hear the actual details…

Mick was looking at him, waiting for a response.

"It sounds like she's just working too hard, Mick," Josef said carefully.

Mick shook his head. "It's not just that, Josef. It's not just her being distracted all the time or not getting enough sleep. She's losing weight," Mick regarded Josef meaningfully, a small but welcome hint of humor in his eyes, "- and you know how Beth loves her food."

Josef did as required, joined in the feeble joke about Beth's appetite with a smile, but the bitter irony wasn't lost on him. What Mick had said was true. Josef had noticed how angular Beth's body was becoming, her shoulder blades as sharp as their namesakes against his chest whenever he curved an arm around her belly and pulled her close.

"Something's wrong, Josef, really wrong." Mick's eyes dropped and he looked away. The silence stretched until Josef thought that he would snap. Finally Mick spoke again. "I've never told you this, but after Beth's kidnapping, her mother spent some time in a psychiatric facility."

Josef's stomach lurched, the full agony of Mick's misapprehension finally clear to him. This, at least, was something he could do for his friend. Josef sat up straighter in his seat, his tone sharp as he said, "Beth's not going mad, Mick. Put that thought right out of your head." Then more gently, "Come on, you know how driven the girl is. She's just working too hard."

"You don't understand, she's, she's…" Mick slumped in the chair, elbows on his thighs, hands hanging loosely between his knees, an expression of utter defeat on his face. When he finally raised his head, his face was twisted with guilt. "I swore to her, Josef… I swore I'd never hurt her, never disappoint her. I hate violating her privacy by telling you this, but God help me, I can live with being a failure as a man and as a lover, but not as her guardian and protector. Never that. I just hope one day she'll forgive me for breaking her trust and telling you this." His tongue moistened his lip. "Last night I finished the surveillance I was working on a little earlier than I expected. When I let myself into her apartment she was in the shower," his voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, " - and she screamed, she screamed, Josef, when she saw me."

Josef dropped his eyelids for a second. It was Beth who had made the call to him last night - three weeks, six days and nineteen hours after he'd watched her step into an elevator and descend into their own mutual hell.

He hadn't hesitated when the phone rang, dismissing his office with a decisive snap of his fingers. She was the only one who had that number and he was aware of the cell's location every waking moment, almost as if invisible threads of spider silk connected him to the device, countless tiny protrusions tugging outward from his skin whenever he stepped too far from the precious, despised contraption. Jesus, he was a walking bruise. He answered and noticed with annoyance the tremble in his fingers as he pressed the phone to his ear, saying nothing, waiting for her to speak. Why should he make it easy, damn her? After last time he'd vowed to himself that he was done. He was finished doing all the chasing. If she wanted it, she would have to come to him. She had to admit that she wanted him at some point. He felt a grim satisfaction at the memory.

The sound of a clock ticking in her apartment filled the void between them, then he heard a single indrawn breath. If it were possible for an intonation of such brevity to convey regret, hers did. She was going to hang up, God-damn-it.

"When?" he snapped, before she lost her nerve and left them both suspended on the wire.

There was an anguished silence.

"Now," she whispered.

In the end it didn't matter who made the call, one of them always did. Josef could feel his body responding to the memory of the things they had done to one another in the penthouse apartment that no one knew about. Last night when she got home she would have stunk of him. He looked up. Mick was still lost in his pain, his face a mask of agony.

"She was afraid of me, Josef. Why would she be afraid of me?" Mick's voice rose and his face dropped into his palm. "Oh God, why wouldn't she? I used to eat little girls like her for breakfast. I knew one day this would be too much for her."

"Nonsense, Mick," Josef snapped, guilt making his tone harsher than intended. "You came upon the lady unexpectedly in her shower. Sheesh, does any horror movie not have that scene in it these days? You just startled her."

"No, Josef, it wasn't that. She screamed when she saw that it was me. Me!" Mick buried his face in his hands and rested it there for a long, long time and when he spoke again his voice was hollow. "There's more. She washed her hair seven times. Seven. I counted and she made me leave the bathroom before she got out, as if she was afraid I was going to attack her." Mick ignored the tear rolling down his cheek and leaned forward in his seat, "Josef, she put the washing machine on at two in the morning. And then she cleaned..." Mick's voice broke. "This has being going on for a long time now, Josef. At least eighteen months. She cleans everything she touches three and four times over, in her place and in mine. She'll be fine for a while and then she cleans in a frenzy for weeks until out of the blue it stops. And then it starts all over again. I've watched over her for twenty-three years and I've never seen her like this. Ever. I'm frightened for her, Josef. I think she's having the same sort of breakdown her mother did and I don't know what to do to help her. Jesus, Josef, what do I do to help her?"

Josef felt ill. He had no idea of the toll that hiding their affair had been taking on Beth, and neither of them ever thought of Mick, deliberately pushing him out of their minds whenever they were together. He loved Beth, knew that with the same certainty he knew the sun would set tomorrow, but he couldn't do this any more. He and Beth were over. He'd leave L.A., go back to Europe for a decade if that's what it took to end this thing, to tear the terrible temptation from his heart before he did any further harm to the people he loved.

He swung his chair around until all he could see were the city lights outside his window.

"I'll tell you what you're going to do, Mick. You're going to go straight home to Beth's, put her and a suitcase into the Mercedes and head straight for Davis airfield. If she even looks like quibbling, don't argue, just put her over your shoulder and carry her out. The Gulfstream will be fuelled and ready to go and extra clothing will be on board. All you need to do is give the pilot a location. My P.A. will sort out anything else that's necessary from here and I'll speak to Talbot at the D.A.'s office myself tomorrow. And Mick," Josef said, "Don't come back until the two of you are fully right."

Mick looked sceptical. "This time away together… do you really think it will make a difference?"

Josef's chair swung back to face Mick. "I know it will."

The relief in Mick's eyes was palpable and for a moment he couldn't speak. He thrust out his hand, "Thank you, Brother."

Mick wasted no time, heading toward the door with his old leonine grace. Halfway there he stopped and turned toward Josef with an apologetic expression on his face. "I know I shouldn't, but, for what it's worth… you've waited too long for Sarah. Find yourself a woman like Beth and fall in love again."

Josef watched the door swing shut behind Mick. A fingertip, moving at the pace a very old man's might, reached forward and depressed the button on his desk lamp and he sat there alone for a very long time in the dark.