Spencer was right. The spot they’d been ordered to for the exchange was optimal for those holding Kirkland.
Jamie and Grant pulled their cars into a barren and empty stretch of land, wide open on three sides as far as the eye could see, yet butting up against a state forest on the other, so that the three of them were completely exposed; they could be seen coming for close to a mile, while Kirkland’s captors had the advantage of taking cover in the shadows of the towering trees and ultimately making their way out the back with no one being the wiser.
Jamie took a series of deep breaths to keep from hyperventilating and, as Lorna advised, clearing his head. He turned off the engine and got out, Spencer doing the same from the passenger side, both of them meeting up with Grant in the middle. The younger Harrison was practically vibrating with tension, glaring resentfully at Jamie and Spencer when they didn’t appear to be doing the same to his satisfaction.
The sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon, casting everything in a grayish, murky light that drove all three to blink in an attempt to force the world into focus. No one doubted that the confusion and sense of disorientation was deliberate.
“Now what?” Grant asked, his head swiveling from side to side, scanning the barren, open prairie, desperate for the first glance of Kirkland.
“Now we wait,” Spencer said with a calm that required a great deal more than a few deep breaths to achieve. Too calmly. Almost as if he’d already detached from this plane, and was now merely going through the last-minute motions.
“Where’s your sniper?” Jamie wondered of the older man.
That rattled Spencer’s Zen a little. “How did you know?”
“Lorna figured that would be your strategy. Plant a sniper somewhere in the vicinity so if anything goes wrong – "
“My son can end up in the line of fire?” Grant nearly shrieked.
“Keep your voice down,” Spencer hissed. “My man has strict orders to hold his fire. Unless he sees anyone trying to double-cross us. I’m not looking for trouble.”
“If Lorna could figure out what you’re up to, odds are so can they,” Grant jerked his thumb in the direction of the eerily still woods.
“Good. More reason to stick to their end of the bargain.”
“Their end of the bargain didn’t include you initiating a gun-battle. This isn’t the OK Corral.”
“Take it easy,” Jamie tried to match his tone to Spencer’s, to speak and move as little as possible, to blend into the landscape, to make it clear that he was no threat to anyone at all. Just as long as his son was returned safe and sound. “Spencer needed some kind of insurance they wouldn’t just put a bullet in his head and take off with Kirk again, use him against Donna or Carl. It’s for Kirkland’s own good. If they see that Spencer brought his own back-up, they’ll be less likely to change terms on us at the last minute.”
“Aren’t you just brimming with specialized knowledge all of a sudden?” Grant snapped, furious that Jamie knew something Grant didn’t where Kirkland was concerned.
“Lorna filled me in.”
“I had no idea she was so useful,” her ex-lover mumbled.
“You never had any idea of Lorna’s value, period,” Jamie couldn’t stop himself from reminding.
“Harrison! ” A mechanically augmented voice blared from between the trees, along with the sudden glare of a spotlight that focused not on the three of them, but a few yards over, on a spot precisely between the entrance to the woods and their two cars.
Grant’s head whipped around at the sound of his name, but the man whom the summons was actually addressed to took his time, turning languidly in its direction.
“Hands up,” the voice ordered. “Into the light.”
Spencer refused to budge. “Not an inch till you show me the boy,” he yelled back, his Irish accent thicker than any of them had ever heard it previously.
A pause, a rustle, and then a pair of shadowy figures, one very obviously shoving the other in front of him, made their way out of the overgrowth, shuffling a few steps towards the light without actually stepping into it.
Grant lunged forward. Spencer held him back with a rigid, warning arm on Grant’s shoulder, followed by a terse shake of the head.
“Said I wanted to see him,” he projected over his son’s head, Spencer’s voice measured, and even menacing. “Got no intention of making this easy for you.”
Another pause, another shove, and suddenly Kirkland was standing just on the edge of the spotlight. He was shaking, and not from the cold of a September morning, his hands no longer tied behind his back like in the photo, but firmly held there by one burly arm, while another squeezed the top of his skull, shoving it downwards, preventing Kirkland from seeing anything but the ground. A trail of blood trickled from his nose and dripped onto his shirt.
This time it was Jamie who couldn’t stop himself from rushing towards his seemingly injured son. Spencer had to physically step in Jamie’s path, nearly tripping him.
“Wait,” he ordered and, at the same time, called over his shoulder, “I’m coming out. You’d best make damn sure I can see him the entire time.”
“What the hell are you doing, provoking them?” Grant demanded, horrified.
“It’s how you play the game, son,” Spencer shrugged apologetically. “I tried to protect you from the seamier sides of life. My mistake. Wasn’t the first. Let’s hope now it’ll be my last.”
The sight of Frankie already back at her computer when they woke up the next morning caught Cass like a sucker-punch to the gut. Every fear he’d managed to suppress the night before while it was just the two of them in each other’s arms, forming a charmed circle to keep the outside world at bay, came back now with a vengeance.
Frankie was hiding something from him. Cass felt certain about that.
The question remained: Did he really want to know what it was? Who Zeno Tantalus was? And what he had to do with the heretofore mysterious life of one Mary Ordway?
“You’re up bright and early,” he observed, kissing the top of Frankie’s head as she sat, nothing that, this time, she made no move to shut her lap-top as he approached.
“Fortunately, people’s secrets don’t keep banker’s hours.”
“No,” Cass agreed. “The worst of them actually seem to prefer the dark.”
“Would you mind getting the girls their breakfast? I think I’m really onto something here.”
“Regarding Jeanne?” Cass double-checked.
Something in his tone prompted Frankie to pause and turn to face him. “Who else?”
“Oh, you know,” he stammered to cover. “Hamilton…”
“I think we’ve hit a dead end, there. The guy is clean. No affairs, no backroom deals, no dirty campaign contributions… I’m almost terrified to consider we might have stumbled upon that rarest of beasts: A politician who is exactly who he says he is.”
“No such animal. All it means is he’s better at covering his tracks. Which means he really has something to hide. Meanwhile, you said no dirty contributions. How about clean ones? Were we right? Are Doug and his family his primary contributors?”
“They’ve all but given him a blank check to take all the way to the White House.”
“Lucky bastard. If I were him, I certainly wouldn’t be rocking the boat.”
“Which brings us back to Lila.”
“Maybe we’ve got it all wrong,” Cass proposed with a touch of desperation – only a fraction of which was actually for Lila and Chase. “Maybe we’ve completely misread the evidence and Chase and Doug are exactly the happy couple they seem to be. That’s possible, isn’t it? Two people who say they love each other actually do? With no one to get between them?”
“I wouldn’t call Lila’s situation her getting between them,” Frankie felt compelled to defend Cass’ ex-wife. Residual guilt could be a damn powerful thing. “Chase is the one coming on to her, she didn’t do anything to encourage it.”
“I’m not blaming her,” Cass sputtered. “I’m not saying Lila is at fault or that she did it on purpose. Things happen. People develop feelings without meaning to. Especially if the circumstances are right. Or out of their control. It’s possible for no one to be the bad guy. The heart wants what the heart wants. And sometimes, it wants… “
“What?” Frankie’s eyes narrowed.
“More than one person,” Cass prompted, figuring it was as good of an opening as any, begging for Frankie to take it, wishing she wouldn’t, terrified either way.
She hesitated for a long moment, looking Cass in the eye, seemingly ready to tell him everything, relieved that he’d figured it out, happy to set down her burden.
With just his eyes, Cass tried to make it clear that he was here to listen, that he wouldn’t judge, that he would accept anything she told him and that they would figure out a way to work through it – whatever it was – together, just like they’d sworn earlier.
Frankie opened her mouth. Cass leaned forward.
But, all she said was, “Give Donna a call, would you? I have some very interesting information for her….”
“Dad…” Grant began, the fight draining out of him as he all but begged for… what?
“Forget it,” Spencer said magnanimously, pulling Grant into a brief hug that ended as swiftly as it had begun, with Spencer all but shoving Grant away from him, looking to make a swift, clean break. “Just try to remember that I… tried. Same way you did with your son. Maybe it will help you understand some things.”
Grant opened his mouth to respond, but Spencer turned away abruptly, facing Jamie, bracing himself for one, final, agonizing task. He cleared his throat and looking down, slid the gold wedding band off his fourth finger, depositing it in Jamie’s palm with a single, fluid motion. Almost as if Spencer feared that if he didn’t do it quickly, he’d never find the courage to do it at all.
“I was going to ask you,” Spencer glanced up to meet Jamie’s eyes. “I was going to ask you to look after her for me. But, then I realized you’re already doing a better job than I ever could.”
Jamie saw no need to argue with him. All he wanted to know was, “What should I… What do you want me to say to her? From you?”
“Tell Alice that anything which mattered, I said to her earlier tonight. I meant every word. Tell her I hope she can forgive me. Tell her I understand if she can’t.”
At that, Spencer smiled wryly, relieved to be done. The difficult part was over. Now came the easy one.
He made a big show of slowly raising his arms, linking his fingers and placing them on his head, elbows out. Spencer dutifully pivoted where he stood and silently began a slow, measured walk towards the light. Towards Kirkland.
“You alright?” Spencer asked as soon as he got close enough to make out that the boy seemed mostly unhurt, just terrified.
Kirkland nodded hesitantly, the hand that had been pressing his head down retracting a little to allow a minimum of movement for getting his point across.
“Let him go,” Spencer barked, exuding a great deal of authority for someone in the midst of a surrender.
The arms holding Kirkland loosened, giving him a hard, stumbling push. “Go.”
“Go,” Spencer repeated when Kirkland appeared either too dazed to follow instructions, or simply confused about which way to go. “Run to your father. He’s waiting for you, right over there." Spencer indicated with his chin. “Go, Kirkland. Quickly. Run. Don’t look back.”
Kirkland ran, tearing out of the light in the direction Spencer had indicated. When he got near enough to see the parked cars, he picked up speed, noticing Grant first and briefly slowing, then barely registering his presence the moment Kirkland caught sight of Jamie, plowing into his father’s arms.
“We have to go. We have to go, Dad. Spencer said to get out of here, we have to go now, or they’ll get you, too.”
“It’s okay,” Jamie clung to Kirkland, needing to believe that he was real and it was all truly over, even as the boy was dragging him towards the car. “I’m here. Kirk,” Jamie struggled to reassure him. “I’ve got you. It’s okay. You’re safe.”
“We’ve got to get out of here. I don’t want them to get you. We have to go home right now. Let’s go, Dad. Let’s go.”
“We’re going,” Jamie patted his back reassuringly. “We’re going. Come on, get in the car, we’ll go straight home. It’s okay. You’re safe. I’m here,” he kept reiterating.
Kirkland leapt into the car, locking it and huddling in the front seat.
Jamie hurried to the driver’s side, opening the door and already half-stepping inside before he remembered and stopped himself, both hands clutching the roof.
Grant still stood where Kirkland had run by him, watching his distressed son with a look of such pain on his face – a look Jamie felt pretty certain currently mirrored his own – that Jamie reluctantly opened his mouth to ask if Grant wanted to come home with them?
Grant cut Jamie off with a terse shake of his head, raising both arms in an unconscious echo of Spencer, palms up, fingers splayed to indicate he intended to stay hands off for now. Kirkland was overwhelmed enough. He didn’t need Grant’s unwanted presence making matters a thousand times worse. Kirkland needed to be where he felt safe. He needed to go home. With his father.
Jamie nodded once to show that he understood, flashing Grant a quick glance of gratitude and respect before ducking into the car and instantly starting the motor, beginning to back up, reassuring Kirkland that they were on their way home.
Grant watched them go, still on alert to anything that might go wrong at the last minute, a trap or a…
There was nothing. Just silence.
Only when he was certain that Jamie’s car had pulled out of the danger zone, did Grant remember to turn back to where he’d last seen his father.
But, both the light – and Spencer – were gone.
“I’ve never seen you speechless before,” Lila observed to Chase as she caught him in his office first thing; he always got in before the rest of the staff – the day after her question of “Are you attracted to me?” sent him scurrying without an answer one way or the other.
“I’ve never been put on the spot before,” he said, sounding more exhausted than anything else.
“Right. You’re that good of a lawyer and politician that no one’s ever – “
“Not like this,” he said.
She accepted his words at face value, although unable to keep herself from teasing, “So how do you like slumming with the rest of us, Your Eminence?”
“Wouldn’t want to build a summer home here.”
“Stop cribbing from The Princess Bride,” Lila advised. “If you’re going to blow me off, at least use original material.”
“I have no intention of blowing you off. You deserve a response, I realize that.”
“Planning to do it in mime?”
“I – “ he began, then stopped abruptly, visibly changing course. “I apologize for my behavior earlier.”
“Earlier in your office?” she clarified. “Or earlier-earlier? I.e. That which led to my question in the first place?”
“Both,” he conceded. “I did send you mixed signals. Rest assured, you haven’t misinterpreted… anything.”
She caught her breath. “Does that mean…”
“Yes,” he sighed, looking so miserable Lila didn’t know whether to take it as an insult or a compliment.
“What?” he asked eagerly.
“Don’t know,” she finished lamely.
“Join the club.”
“You realize what’s ironic?” Chase asked.
“Honestly, I can’t think of anything that isn’t, right about now.”
“If the circumstances were reversed, if I were straight and had been with only one woman my entire life, and I suddenly had this… this thing – “
“That’d be me, I take it? The thing in question?”
“No! ” He stood up, shaking his head. “Me. Me, I’m – “
“Sorry,” Lila told him sincerely. “I don’t mean to be making fun.”
“Please do,” he smiled weakly. “It’s beats the alternative.”
“What were you going to say?” she prompted.
“Oh." He shrugged, suddenly no longer as keen on his metaphor. “Just that, if I were a presumably straight man who suddenly found himself attracted to another man after twenty years in a traditional relationship, I’d be getting encouragement to explore my feelings, entire organizations would be wanting to support me and offer me advice and explaining how it was time to stop living a lie and become who I was always destined to be, who I always was, except I’d been refusing to face it. I’d be a folk hero for finally honestly acknowledging who I really am.”
“I take it that’s not the way it works in reverse?”
“Not that I’m aware of, no.”
“Do you want to…”
“I don’t know,” he spread his arms helplessly and stared upwards, either searching for divine guidance or merely wishing to ascend the situation entirely. Then, as if suddenly getting control of himself, he straightened up and informed her, “But, fact is, it really doesn’t matter one way or the other.”
“Thank God,” Lorna burst out, looking from Jamie to Kirkland as they straggled through the front door, unsure of which one to grab first, settling for hugging Kirkland tightly. “You’re okay.”
“I’m… okay,” he said shakily. The more Jamie kept reassuring him and the further they got away from… there, the more Kirkland managed to pull himself together, to begin believing that they were safe, that his stupidity hadn’t put more of Kirkland’s family in danger. He hugged Lorna back. “I’m sorry I made you worry.”
“Shut up, I don’t want to hear it,” she ordered him sternly, letting go of her stepson just long enough to look up at Jamie.
He smiled weakly, still visibly shaken but also infinitely relieved. Every instinct in Lorna’s body screamed for her to throw herself into his arms and stay there indefinitely. But now wasn’t the time. Instead, she merely melted briefly against him, letting Jamie hold her for a moment, kissing him more in relief than anything else, before stepping aside, swallowing hard, and informing him, “You’ve got a visitor.”
Lorna moved out of his sightline and gestured towards the couch, where Alice sat waiting.
“Your feelings don’t matter? Who you truly are, doesn’t matter?”
“No,” Chase said firmly, sounding relieved to have at long last remembered this one fact. It made everything so much easier. “I love Doug. I have loved him since I was fourteen years old. That hasn’t changed, that won’t change, no matter what I may have…. I love Milagros. I love our life, I love our family. More importantly, I made a commitment to it. To them.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in marriage?” Lila hid behind facts.
“I don’t believe in government telling anyone who they can or cannot marry. I made a personal commitment to Doug and Milagros that has nothing to do with the government. I made it willingly. I have no intention of going back on that.”
“But, if you’ve started to feel…”
“It doesn’t matter,” he repeated even more vehemently. “Man, woman, there’s no difference ultimately. A momentary attraction is no reason to throw away twenty years. It’s certainly no reason to break up a home." Chase told Lila, “I realize that’s not how it’s supposed to go. I’m a politician. I’m supposed to be a hypocrite. I’m sorry to shake up the narrative, disappoint the public.”
“I am not a member of your public,” Lila snapped, feeling like she was being unfairly attacked, even if she couldn’t for the life of her put a finger on precisely how. “I thought I was your friend.”
“You are,” he softened. “You are. I didn’t mean to… The main thing I’m sorry about is putting you in the middle of this, in the middle of my… confusion. If I were any kind of friend, I would have never allowed you to see – “
“This is all my fault. I accept that. But, I’m not going to compound one error by making an even bigger one on top of it. I don’t want anything to change. Not between Doug and I, not between you and I. I hope we can still be friends. Do you think that’s possible? I would hate to lose you, Lila.”
“Is Kirkland alright?” Alice asked politely after Jamie had returned downstairs from tending to his son.
“Physically? Yeah. The cuts and bruises are mostly superficial. His nose isn’t broken. I cleaned the abrasions out, put on bandages. I gave him a small sedative, too. He was so worked up. He wanted the lights left on and for me to stay until he’d fallen asleep. He hasn’t asked for that since he was seven years old.”
“He’s been through something unspeakably horrific for any age, much less his. It’s going to take time for him to recover. The physical damage is the easy part.”
Jamie asked cautiously, “Did Lorna… fill you in?”
“A little. She was half out of her mind with worry, I didn’t want to add to her burden. Or yours. I’m sorry for barging in like this, Jamie, but… I needed to know.”
“I needed to know why my husband left the house this morning looking like he never expected to see me again?”
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