The High Price of Steele

Addendum to "A Steele at Any Price," in response to fanfic challenge Encore! Encore!

"If you care so little for money, Miss Holt," Steele said, "Why, may I ask, are you filching my wallet?"

Moments later, after showing Louis Grummand out with a hearty handshake and a $100 bill, Laura returned to Steele's office. He stood looking out the window, hands in pockets, and didn't turn when she came in. Laura sidled up next to him, ran her hands over his chest and around his neck, pulled him toward her and into an uncharacteristically one-sided kiss.

"Angling for my wallet again, Miss Holt?" Steele murmured as they pulled apart. She laughed.

He didn't.

"You're in a mood, Mr. Steele," Laura commented. "Still sulking over that lost finder's fee? Don't worry. I'm sure there will be plenty of other opportunities to cash in on this particular aspect of our expertise."

"Not if I can help it."

Laura dropped her arms from around his neck and stepped away. "Well, you're obviously irked about something. If it's not the finder's fee, then …" She stopped as a dawning awareness came over her face. "It's me, isn't it?"

Steele didn't answer. He didn't have to.

"I see. Fan dancing on the tabletops all over again. Prim little Laura loosens up a bit and suddenly she's an embarrassment. I'm sorry I offended your delicate sensibilities, Mr. Steele." She turned on her heel to stalk out, but he caught her by the wrist, turned her back to face him.

"Laura," he said, looking intently into her brown eyes. "That's not it. Believe me, I appreciate your exuberance, your passion, and I'd love to see more of it, directed at anything: skydiving, or cooking, or …" he smiled slightly, "…me. But not this."

"This, what?" Laura retorted. "You don't really think I'm going to run out and become an international art thief, do you? Just because I happened to enjoy a short walk on the wild side."

"Too much, I think."

"You're being ridiculous." She wrested her arm from him. "It was a lark, that's all. Frankly, I thought you'd be pleased that I gained some insight into your past. As I said, it certainly made me understand why you did it. But that doesn't mean I'm going to follow suit."

"I'm not worried about you embarking on a life of crime, Laura. But I know how powerful that rush you've been feeling can be. It can make you reckless, lead you to take chances you shouldn't. And as I said, it doesn't last. Yet like any drug, once you've tasted the high, you can spend the rest of your life chasing it, no matter what the cost."

"Honestly, I think you're being a bit melodramatic."

Steele sighed. "Perhaps. To be honest, Laura, as eager as you are to get a grip on my past, there are things about it I don't want you ever to understand."

"You're afraid I'd judge you?"

"I suppose that's part of it." Unexpectedly, Steele took her hand and led her to the couch. He sat and tugged her gently down next to him. "You're so determined to know about the life I've lived. Frankly, I'd rather let some sleeping dogs lie, but I don't want our little adventure to leave you with any distorted — and dangerous — misconceptions."

"You're actually beginning to scare me a bit, Mr. Steele," Laura said. "This isn't where you confess that you're really D.B. Cooper, right?" Even she couldn't smile at her feeble attempt at a joke.

Steele seemed to take no notice of her comment. His eyes had taken on a faraway look, as if he were gazing into some bottomless chasm or toward a distant horizon. "As you discovered, the adrenaline rush of pulling off a heist can be very alluring. It certainly was for me, in the beginning. But the life that goes with it … isn't what you may imagine." He stood up and walked toward the window again, not able to meet her gaze as shared what he'd hoped he'd never have to.

"First of all, you don't often stay in four-star hotels and luxury penthouses. Usually you're holed up in some filthy alley or abandoned warehouse or the bed of someone you don't care about. As you get better at what you do, there are fewer alleys and more strangers' beds, but they're really not much warmer.

You make connections, but never friends — because you can't afford to trust anyone. You look out for number one, since in the end that's all you have. A good score will buy you a fortnight on the Riviera, but a steady diet of even caviar and champagne becomes pretty bland over time.

You find yourself in the most exciting, glamorous places in the world, but you're not there to sightsee. You spend every moment planning the operation you've come to complete, and once that's accomplished, you spend every moment planning the next one. Well, not every moment. You're also looking over your shoulder, watching for whoever, on whichever side of the law, is most determined to find you this week. You don't think beyond the next heist, because for you the future doesn't exist. There is only this day — no, this moment — that demands every ounce of your concentration … to get to, or get away, or simply get out alive.

Steele was back at the window, palms against the glass as if wanting to push out the pane and make his escape.

"Then there's the little matter of keeping it all straight in your head: who you are this week, where you've been that you don't dare go back to, who you've crossed, and who's crossed you. You can't keep notes, and you can't make mistakes, because answering to the wrong name or slipping into the wrong bed can get you killed.

Maybe, every once in a while, you indulge yourself. Slip away for a couple of hours in some out-of-the-way movie theatre … in part because it's dark, and you won't be recognized. But mostly because that celluloid fantasy lets you feel ever-so-briefly connected, even if tenuously and by proxy, to a world where people have homes and jobs and relationships.

You have the whole world, but that world is a surprisingly small one. You get to know the others who are like you, cross their paths more often than you'd expect. You hear who's had a big score, who slipped up and is looking at 10-20 of hard time — and who was found in some $20-a-night dive with a bullet in their head, or floating in the Thames, or the Seine, or the Volga, or the Hudson. And if they were a competitor or an enemy, you raise a glass and say, "Good riddance." And if they were someone you happened to like … you raise a glass and say, "Well, better him than me." But you say it quietly, because you know that some day, in some other filthy alley or stranger's bed, someone will be saying it about you."

Steele turned to face Laura, who was looking at him with eyes shining with tears. "So that's the glamorous life of the con artist." He crossed to her, touched her cheek gently. "It's not a life I ever want for you."

Laura reached up to cover his palm with her own. "Why did you do it?" she whispered.

His smile was thin. Sad. "Because it was all I knew. Until I met you."

"Promise me you'll never go back to that life."

He withdrew his hand, leaned down to kiss her tenderly. "I can promise you I won't go back to that life … today," he said. At her questioning look, he added, "Old habits die hard, Miss Holt." He straightened up and walked to the office door. "See you in the morning, Laura," he said quietly, closing the door behind him.

"I hope so, Mr. Steele," she said … and let her tears flow.