Fic: Tomorrow Was Made for Some
blacktop50
Title:                    Tomorrow Was Made for Some
Authors:               blacktop and rose_griffes
Characters:         John Reese, Joss Carter, Lionel Fusco, Harold Finch, Sameen Shaw, Taylor Carter, Original Characters
Rating:                M
Warnings:           Sexual situations and unplanned pregnancy
Word count:        38,000
Summary:           Reese and Carter are unprepared to navigate the turbulence of their tentative relationship through a year of shocks and challenges.  At critical moments, when things seem about to flame out, Fusco, Shaw, and Finch provide crucial assistance.  Thirteen chapters, complete.



http://archiveofourown.org/works/4993876/chapters/11472460

Fic: Baby Carnage, Part II
blacktop50
A twinge of compassion threaded through Joss then, the niggling sense that this woman before her was in trouble somehow. Was Crystal, for all her combative bluster and deadly gunplay, under siege?

Behind the murderous affect and swagger, perhaps this woman was more embattled than lethal.

On the surface, they seemed such different women, one on the street, the other on the sidewalk, a broad deep gutter separating their lives.

But maybe the race they ran was not parallel after all, but intertwined. By some strange curve or odd fork, their life paths had crossed in a double helix of shared danger.

With a jolt, Joss felt she recognized this woman, her small stature, her brown skin, her undervalued skills and belittled insights. She felt she understood something true about Crystal’s twisted journey to this room, this confrontation.

So a sense of unexpected sisterhood warmed her next question.

“Go on then, Crystal. You want something from us? From me?”

The soft prodding seemed to open up a new vein of melancholy in the younger woman.

She stared through the windows at the bright parade of skyscrapers stretching against the milk white clouds.

“You ever wish you could get there ahead of the crime, Carter? Get there in time to stop the bad thing before it went down? Instead of mopping up the blood and death after all us gangbangers get away?”

“Yeah, I feel like that a lot.”

Joss’s wistful words came out more like a sob than she had intended.

“Most days on the job, I feel like that. If I stop to think about it too much.”

She looked a glance of apology at John and when his eyes gleamed wet with empathy, Joss released a juddering sigh.

At the sound, the younger woman turned, her slender figure silhouetted against the window’s glare.

“And can you help me, Crystal? Help me get there in time?”

Then the offer burst out in a fiery rush of words.

“You know I got inside information. Right from the top. I can give it to you, Carter. Help you break a case. Give you a heads up on a heist. Or let you know when the next shipment’s due. Or who’s about to get erased. Shit like that.”

Joss nodded encouragement, her excitement genuine.

“That could work. It could help. A lot.”

Even as the bigger picture unfurled in their shared vision, thoughts of an immediate risk curled around the edges of the canvas.

“But you’d be in danger, Crystal, wouldn’t you?”

The younger woman shrugged and walked back toward the chairs, bending to lay her gun on the rough slats of the coffee table.

“I’m in danger every day regardless. We all gonna end up dead, you know. Just some of us gonna get there sooner than others, that’s all.”

A smaller shrug this time, the head tilt stiffened with chagrin.

“I turn twenty-two next month. Already an old lady in this trade.”

Joss let her brows slide upwards at this declaration of defeat, but remained silent.

“Dominic making it to twenty-nine is some kinda miracle, never seen it happen before. Never will again, I figure. So I don’t fool myself about living long. That’s not for me, I know that much.”

She screwed up a corner of her mouth in a grimace.

“My number’s already been called.”

“You think you’re in danger from Dominic?”

“Well, he blew up that reform school a few months back, didn’t he? Trying to get at Old Man Elias. Killed six of our best men and fucked up ten more so bad they still ain’t back on the streets.”

Crystal shuddered at the memory, lids closing for a long pause as she caught her breath. Joss thought the lowered lashes made her look like a sleeping baby.

A slight rustle caused Joss to look toward the kitchen. She saw John’s hand in his jacket pocket, his finger caressing the hidden key. He caught her glance, narrowing his lips to signal their understanding.

Crystal, unaware, continued her story.

“Dominic didn’t blink an eye doing it. Just told me those busted up men was the cost of doing business in the city. Soldiers lost in the war, he said.”

“Maybe he’s just being realistic about the necessary sacrifice.”

Joss didn’t believe this, but she offered it as a thin comfort all the same.

“You know Link, one of Dominic’s top lieutenants?”

“Yeah, John told me about him a while back.”

She thought Crystal blinked, perhaps to catch a stray tear before continuing.

“Well, I seen the way Link looked when he stumbled out of that place that day. It wasn’t just how his face was cut up and his arm was shattered. I saw how the explosion left his mind all trampled and flighty, like he’d seen his own ghost and was tripping over himself to get away.”

She loosed a faint breath that puffed out her lips.

“But that ghost, it was stitched to him like a shadow. Link ain’t been right since.”

Joss shook her head, refusing to accept the twist.

“But Dominic trusts you. He wouldn’t get rid of you. I’ve seen how you work together. How much he relies on your insights and your guidance. You’re safe, Crystal.”

The little killer sighed, a vertical line creasing her flawless brow. Then another sigh, as if the explanation itself was a heavy burden she strained to carry any further up the hill.

“Not a chance. I told you I got to be his right hand when Carnage died. But I didn’t tell you how that happened.”

The woman, looking more like the lost girl she really was, shrank into the embracing chair again. She worried at invisible tags of flesh on her knuckles as she pulled together the last of her story.

“Dominic ordered the hit. He heard some gossip that Carnage was planning to pull off a side drug deal with some Russian skags, skim off a little profit on the side. Dominic couldn’t let that kind of thing stand. Betrayal like that will spread through your whole organization, he said. Like an infection rips through a body, ‘til the fever brings you to a raving end. Dominic said Carnage had to go.”

Crystal hesitated only a fraction of a moment, until the next affirmation carried her forward.

“And he was right, ya know. I knew for a fact what Carnage had planned. I had the inside line. And I dropped it to Dominic. I was the one snitched on Carnage.”

Another pause, but the end was a boulder rolling downhill now, dragging her on to the last.

“And Dominic told me I was the one had to pull the trigger.”

“And you -- you did it?”

Stuttering made the question kink in Joss’s throat.

“I did. Put two bullets in the back of Roger’s head while he slept there in the bed beside me.”

Joss couldn’t help the hissing sound she made at this raw confession. She bit her lip to recapture silence.

But after a tense minute, John’s low voice cut through the sparkling sunlight again:

“Crystal, you know we can’t protect you. Today, sure. Maybe tomorrow too. But not forever. Not inside The Brotherhood.”

“I know that. You can’t protect me. That’s why I want this deal. Why I want to be an informant for Carter now.”

She tilted her head toward Joss even as her gaze clung to John’s face.

He caught the import of her words before Joss did.

“You want protection for someone else. Not yourself. That it?”

Crystal’s eyes shone bright as she stared at John.

“Yeah, someone else.”

Her connection, formerly with Joss alone, had mysteriously expanded during this strained hour to encompass him as well.

Holding her breath, Joss watched as John slipped his right hand from the unlocked manacle and took three strides toward their position. She could see where the cuff had left reddened grooves on his wrist.

He advanced without menace or aggression, his steps making no sound after he reached the Persian rug.

“Yomaira.”

Whispering into her ear piece, the machine repeated the strange word, “Yomaira.” Gentle syllables, languid and musical, the R rolled with a flourish.

Joss didn’t know if this was a warning, a name, or simply the super computer’s vague musings in a foreign language. “Yomaira.”

When John was in front of Crystal’s chair, he lowered his body until his head was level with hers, so that despite his bulk he didn’t loom. Joss thought he looked like an imploring suitor, not a combatant.

Crouching before her, his next words carried a soft declaration rather than a probe.

“A baby. Your baby.”

Frozen in his penetrating blue gaze, the young woman answered.

“Yeah, for JoJo.”

When she didn’t go on immediately, John prompted her again.

“JoJo is your baby?”

“Yomaira Sonia. I called her that after my grandma. She’s three years old now, chatters like a little monkey.”

Smiles fluttered across Crystal’s face, fond ones and proud ones chasing each other as her thoughts raced ahead of her words.

“Reads the whole alphabet, sings and counts in Spanish and in English too.”

John hummed a little sound of affirmation, no smile yet but a tiny buzz escaping his lips to urge Crystal onward.

“If I can, I’ll get her out of this life. Out of this war zone. JoJo deserves a better shot than this.”

Joss hated to sound doubtful in this crisis of spirit, but she said it anyway.

“Will Dominic let her go?”

Crystal’s reply was resolute, even vehement.

“He don’t have no fuckin’ say in it! He can give me orders, I’m his soldier. His mission is my mission. But JoJo don’t have a mission yet.”

Then fiercely:

“And I don’t want my baby scouting some damn street corner at eight. A lamp-poster in his army before she turns ten.”

When John touched his fingers to the back of her hand, she hiccupped, just a little, to swallow the sob that was surging in her throat.

“We can get JoJo out of the city for you, Crystal. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

He traced a figure eight to soothe the tendons of her gun hand, the competent brown knuckles there flexing like a cat under his caress.

She nodded, a weary gesture that barely lifted her trembling chin from her chest.

Joss seconded John’s pledge.

“We can do it, if that’s what you want.”

John added, “We’ll come up with something, Crystal.”

Not quite a smile, but a lift to his cheekbones signaled the accord had been reached.

As he spoke, Joss eased her hand over the vicious Glock and lifted it from the packing crate. Crystal’s thoughts were elsewhere.

“You get JoJo to my grandma’s in Tampa and they’ll find a way to get her to the island. You do that and I’ll do anything you want. Any fuckin’ thing you want, if you get her away from here safe.”

“Why don’t you take her yourself, make a new life somewhere else?”

Joss felt she had to ask, to clear away all the scattered possibilities so that the one stark choice was inevitable.

“I told you, Carter. I’m his soldier in this war. I know it. Dominic knows it. You know it too.”

She swept a resigned glance across their faces, her prisoners turned allies in a dangerous skirmish she fully expected to lose.

“If I run, Dominic hunts me down. If I take JoJo, he finds me even easier.”

A tremor pulsed through her frame, the forlorn quaver shaking Joss as well.

Then like a cloud passing from a battle field, Joss saw the grimness which had darkened Crystal’s expression clear away.

A new determination, coupled with a familiar smirk surfaced now.

“But we’ll come up with something, just like Fancy Face here said.”

Her aspect turned pretty again in that instant. Was it real happiness? Not a chance, but Joss was sure a flush tinted the gangster’s cheeks.

“And after that, Carter, I’m yours for life.”

With an impish nod, Crystal slapped both hands on the arms of her chair and leaned forward, her nose almost touching John’s.

Then she shouted, so that his eyes started in surprise.

“Hey, Riley! Where you keep your john around here? A girl’s got needs!”

Another coarse chuckle as she scampered across the living room in the direction he pointed.

When he heard the bathroom door slam shut, John blurted an order to Joss.

“Unbolt the front door. Cavalry’s on the way.”

She rushed to do as he asked, then hid the Glock under her seat cushion and settled back into her chair before Crystal returned. John remained in place, now seated on the packing crate a few feet from their captor, a hand balanced on the arm of her chair, his legs wide, chest and shoulders squared over her.

Joss thought he seemed to be enfolding Crystal without actually touching her, his gesture an implicit contract, a promise for the future.

She knew his protective embrace so well, had felt cherished in its circle a thousand times. John’s enfolding solace was so essential to her now, the very substance and foundation of her life, that she was glad she could witness this extension of it here.

She hoped that her silent consent would give courage to Crystal and love to John. She would keep a little portion of both for herself too; they would need all of it and more in the coming struggle.

They held these positions -- Joss in her chair, John poised before Crystal -- in a graceful tableau of trust, for several more minutes.

Buoyed by new optimism, Crystal resumed her hoodlum tales of life on the Bronx battlefield, seeming to relish this chance to glory once more in her blood soaked achievements.

Joss thought these stories now served as a kind of weird advertisement, proclaiming Crystal’s unique value to her new allies. In light of their agreement, these legends seemed the sign and unbreakable seal of her transferred loyalties.


+++++++++


Fusco’s shattering entry scared Joss, even though she was expecting it.

The metal door flew back with such a bang that at first she thought it must be gunfire.

Then Fusco bulled his way forward, service revolver drawn, wild bellows stunning the apartment’s sunlit quiet. He was alone, but with his overcoat rising around his knees, and a red mask of rage stretching his face, her partner seemed like a charging battalion.

“Hands where I can see ‘em! All a you!”

John sprang upright and pulled Crystal from her chair. He wrapped his arms around her and then turned his back to Fusco, an instinctive shield to counter the cop’s blind assault.

As Fusco lumbered toward them, Joss shouted over the rattling of the floor boards.

“We’re O.K., Lionel! Don’t shoot!”

She raised her hands in the air, as if she were the thug and not the victim.

“We’re alright. It’s O.K. now!”

Though he lowered his weapon right away, it took Fusco several minutes to wind down and assess the altered situation.

“Glasses told me you were in some kinda tough spot or something, so I got here on the double.”

The frown he tossed at John was Fusco’s harshest form of rebuke.

Joss knew he had been frightened and used her most soothing tones to calm his fears.

“We were, Lionel. And now we’re not. Trouble over and everything’s alright.”

“Yeah, well, if you say so.” Skeptical with a dollop of brooding on top.

Then Fusco peered at Crystal’s pouting face, her body slack and small as she trembled in John’s enveloping arms.

“Hey, I recognize this one. The littlest assassin in the Big Apple. Emerald, wasn’t it? Or Diamond? Or some other kinda shiny rock.”

“Yeah, and fuck you too!”

She let her eyes bug out in petulant defiance at the insult, but made no move to leave John’s embrace.

“This is Crystal Floyd, Fusco.”

John spoke at last, his voice rumbling through the room with quiet authority.

“She’s in my custody.”

“Yeah, sure she is.”

Fusco’s sardonic tone indicated he thought John might be pulling a fast one.

“But in the meantime, just let me run her in to the shop. I bet we got an outstanding warrant or fifty on her murdering little ass.”

“I said: she’s in my custody, Lionel. We’ve got it covered.”

John was crisp and the squaring of his shoulders said his word was final.

But for the first time that morning, Joss noticed the wash of violet that darkened the inner corners of his eye sockets, the tiny threads of red zagging through the whites. He looked depleted, exhausted, and shaken.

Several more minutes of back and forth finally convinced Fusco that his partners were indeed serious about letting The Brotherhood’s top killer go free.

“Just so long as this don’t come back to bite me in the ass, I guess I hafta take your word for it.”

“It won’t, I promise.” Joss was the conciliator here, the two men still at loggerheads.

To end the stand-off, she rearranged the players, like a hostess at a dinner flicking the lights to shift in the party’s dynamic.

“It’s been a pretty long morning, fellas. I still need to get into the precinct before Captain chews my ass off one more time. And so do you, Riley.”

Her tone was brusque, giving orders where she had been on the receiving end only a few hours before.

“Lionel, will you get a glass of water or juice or something from the frig for Floyd here. I need to talk with John for a minute.”

Fusco deepened his scowl, promising that this was not a done deal, not by a long shot.

When they got to his bedroom, Joss shut the door and wheeled on John.

“You O.K.?”

“Yes.”

He let the fringe of black lashes linger over his cheekbones for a fraction too long.

“You don’t look O.K.”

“I’m O.K.”

He exhaled, then sat down on the rumpled bed clothes, leaning back so that his stiff arms propped his torso. She sat beside him, smoothing the quilt between them.

He wasn’t going to say it, so she would:

“I was frightened out there. I didn’t know if she was crazy enough to make us chose which one she shot first.”

“Yes. She was that crazy.”

“But it worked out O.K., John. We’re O.K. now.”

His eyes, when he finally raised them to meet hers, were shiny with tears, the pupils so translucent they seemed foiled over with silver.

“I calculated all the angles, the distances, Joss. But I just couldn’t figure out how to get to her before she shot you. It was… I – I don’t know…”

He ran his right hand over his brow, pushing an index finger into the corner of his eye as if to poke out the horrific image.

She drew the hand away from his face and clasped it in both of hers, stroking until warmth flooded into the fingers again.

“I know, baby. I know.”

A kiss on the side of his head just above the right ear.

“But you know what else I know? Together we’ll figure out a way to help her. Through her we can strike at The Brotherhood, strangle it for good. And save an innocent child at the same time.”

John seemed to rally at this idea.

“Yes, I’ll come up with something.”

“No. We will come up with something. Together, that’s how it works with us.”

He raised both hands until they cradled her jaw, angling her mouth for a gentle kiss.

“It’s not safe for you here anymore. They know where I live and sooner or later they’ll come back and get you.”

He ran trembling fingers over the fine baby hairs along her temple.

“I can’t let that happen. Ever. I won’t lose you. So you can’t stay here anymore. We’ll find a way. But you can’t stay here.”

Warm lips pressed to her forehead, she thought she felt them curve into a smile, but she wasn’t sure. Then a third kiss, deeply into her mouth. But when she raised her hands to his shoulders, he fled back to the living room.

Joss dissolved into tears.

The tense emotions of the day released at last, mixing with the harsh finality of his words, all his fears braiding with hers into a rope of despair tightening around them.

They had to find a way.


+++++++++


A few minutes later Fusco departed, the trapped air in the apartment seeming to decompress as he went.

Then John left with Crystal, his fist gripping her wiry biceps, muscles jumping along his clenched jaw as he hustled her out. They might have reached a détente, but Joss knew his vigil would never relax.

As John pushed her through the door, the tiny killer nodded once at Joss. The smile gracing her lips at that final moment seemed more sincere than any flashed during the whole weird morning they had shared.

They would meet again, the sweet smile promised, and those circumstances would be different, certainly violent perhaps even fatal.

But Joss hoped that the bond forged in these anxious hours would become part of Crystal’s private arsenal of memories; a treaty to be honored despite all the complications and dangers of the days ahead.

Crystal would never tell this peculiar story out loud, Joss was certain of that. But surely she would treasure it all the same.

And maybe, just maybe, it would turn out that Crystal – mad, devoted, deadly -- was the way out for them all.

When John’s apartment was quiet at last, Joss circled once around it, gathering her coat, badge, and gun.

“Stay.” The insistent cackle of the machine started up again in her ear. “Stay, Joss.”

She launched her retort into the hushed sunlight that still flooded the space:

“The hell you say!”

“Stay, Joss.”

The ear piece made such a satisfying crunch as she smashed it under her boot.

Fic: Baby Carnage, Part I
blacktop50
Title: Baby Carnage
Author: blacktop
Characters: Joss Carter, John Reese, Lionel Fusco, Minor Character
Rating: R
Warnings: Gun violence, coarse language
Word Count: 7,700
Summary: The tranquility of Detective Riley's apartment couldn't last forever; a new villain on a mission disrupts Reese and Carter's morning routine. This story is posted in two parts. It follows on developments in another story, "Dominion," which explored the tightening stranglehold of a new gang, The Brotherhood.





“Stay.”

Until the whispered plea wafted from under the disheveled comforter, Carter had assumed Reese was sleeping soundly once again.

Saturday was five days in the future, the feeble March sun peering through his bedroom windows tried its best to prod them through their workday morning routine.

Sex, shower, whole wheat toast dry, high-octane coffee with a splash of milk for her, black for him.

They had only made it through step one so far.

“Stay, Joss.”

John’s muffled drawl took on a new urgency, the slow but enticing story spelled out in words that set her insides tingling.

The chapter and verse of his tale was elaborated in moist syllables pressed against her chin, her throat, her clavicle, her throbbing breast.

“Unfinished business here.”

A hard thigh across her leg, a compelling argument pressed against her ass.

“Stay.”

Detective Riley, with his roguish smiles, could get away with habitual tardiness.

Of course, Fusco grumbled from time to time, just to stay in step with the starchier members of the squad. But months ago Captain Moreno had given up even pretending to chastise Riley about his cavalier approach to rules.

Unorthodox didn’t begin to describe his methods, but Riley cleared his cases, rounded up the requisite number of suspects, even pried a few grateful words out of grumpy civilians. His numbers made Moreno look good and that was what counted with the brass. It didn’t matter if Riley arrived late at the station house.

But Carter knew she was subject to a harsher standard, always had been, always would be.

She was determined to make it to roll call this morning on time and unrushed. Running late might be good for her libido, but it was bad for her career advancement.

So when his fingertips started tapping another cajoling tattoo on her hip and his warm palm pressed against the pulse fluttering between her legs again, she wriggled away into the chilly morning air and scrambled for the bathroom.

But the roll and pitch of her desire made the floor seem to buckle as she walked and it took several splashes of cold water before she regained her balance. The slack mouth and reddened lips, the Medusa tangle of hair staring back from the mirror made a case for returning to bed, as did the wet trails of passion across her throat and shoulders and nipples.

Riley. Reese. John.

She didn’t need this distraction; but she wanted it, more than she would ever say.

The supreme irony of the Samaritan war was that when the machine created Detective Riley as a cover identity for John, the birth of the new persona had given them a respite from secrecy and the harried subterfuge of their vigilante life.

They could enjoy a more public existence than they had ever known before. Freed from the shadows, they could sit in the stands at Taylor’s basketball games together, they could debate the merit of vintages at the local boutique wine outlet together, they could openly spend the night together in Riley’s new home whenever time permitted. Not every night, not as often as she might have wished, not nearly enough to call it regular or normal or ordinary.

But despite the war, despite the anxiety and constant menace, they could exhale. Together.


+++++++++

The one-bedroom apartment was boxy and bland, a miniature recapitulation of the anonymous fifteen story building itself. With just Riley’s cop salary to work with and precious little time or patience, John had furnished it in a single hectic weekend. The sparse set up included a pair of brown leather club chairs, a three-seat sofa in camel corduroy, and two floor lamps stationed on the blond parquet wood.

Once Joss had asked about a coffee table, but she made no other decorating suggestions after John installed a massive raw wood shipping crate in front of the couch.

A new king bed and a four-drawer dresser crowded the bedroom. The kitchen was a brief galley of maple wood cabinets facing the living room, its stainless steel appliances and plain white tile backsplash signaling the exhaustion of the building’s dull decorator. An island topped with black granite divided the kitchen from the living room, two aluminum stools providing Joss with a safe perch from which to watch John prepare meals.

One week after John moved into the apartment, a burly delivery man had dumped two large rolled up Oriental rugs in front of the kitchen island. No message, no signature required, no comment from the mute porter.

Ornate house-warming gifts from Harold.

The pale Persian in ivories and midnight blues was wide enough to protrude from both sides of the bed. A larger tribal rug’s pattern of blood reds, navy, and gold relieved the starkness of the living room’s rough furniture. The carpet shimmered in the light from wide windows that lined one wall of the open space; beyond, lower Manhattan’s crisp silhouettes masked the bustle of the living streets below.

Joss wanted to borrow the glimmer of the city lights for the cool apartment interior, so from her own overstuffed storage unit, she had retrieved a silver-framed mirror for the entrance hall and a white porcelain vase to hold the roses she occasionally brought.

She hadn’t asked John’s permission when she hung the mirror and installed the vase, but as he didn’t object or even comment, she took his silence for approval.

With the lush carpets as an exotic grace note, the place didn’t look precisely like either one of them, she felt. Rather, it seemed an amalgam of their styles: clean and angular, more cool and empty than she would have wished; but in the tumult and dangerous uncertainty of their lives, John’s new apartment was an anchor she clung to with increasing frequency.


+++++++++


Now through the closed door of the bathroom, she could hear the rustle of bedcovers tossed aside and then a cheerful humming buzzed around the space.

“You can run, Little Missy. You can even hide.”

John’s wizened accent was a close approximation of Yosemite Sam’s crabbed old prospector voice.

“But I know where you stay and I’ma gonna get you sooner or later.” A cartoonish cackle, then the humming resumed.

The day had officially begun.

Even though she had a head start, she couldn’t deny John access to his own bathroom for long. So he managed to shower and dress in his efficient black and white before she had even slapped a coat of lotion on her arms. Her hair twisted into a top-knot, she tugged her pullover and slacks from the bottom dresser drawer. She could hear him in the kitchen, the murmur of his morning conversation with Harold punctuated by the ferocious popping of the toaster.

When she entered the kitchen, a stack of wheat toast nestled beside a steaming mug of coffee on the counter. He had laced it with just the right amount of milk for her, the swirls of white and black still revolving as she approached the island.

John was slipping into his black overcoat, a gloved hand on the door knob. Though she wanted to, she knew better than to stop him for a final kiss.

In the few minutes since their last embrace, he had transformed into work mode, his face a keen mask of duty and resolve.

“Nothing from Finch. I’ll catch you at the precinct.”

“Right. Stay safe out there.”

Though her tone was casual and cheery, she couldn’t keep the wistful caution out of her voice altogether. Every time they parted she felt as though she was sending her soldier off to the battle front.

She nodded a farewell then and turned back for another sip of the scalding coffee.


+++++++++


“Stay.”

The murmur in her ear as she fastened the top button of her overcoat was soft but startling nonetheless.

A drawled voice, low and precise as always. The machine announcing its presence again.

She spoke out loud so that it could hear her over the water’s gurgle as she ran the faucet to rinse out her coffee mug:

“You think you’re funny, hunh? A real comedian.”

She didn’t want to believe that the artificial intelligence watched them as closely as that; for her own sanity, she had to assume it gave them a little privacy in their most intimate moments. But this order did seem uncomfortably like a direct imitation of John’s earlier plea.

“Stay.”

“You’re sick, you know?” Whispered, but she put some venom into it.

Moving with swift deliberation toward the door, she clomped her boots in defiance.

“If you say it one more time, I smash this damn ear piece so hard even you’ll feel the pain!”

“Stay, Joss.”

Before she could lift her hand to carry out the threat, a heavy knock disrupted the apartment’s calm.

She pulled back the front door to find John rigid and motionless in the frame, the whites visible all around his pupils as they blazed an indecipherable warning.

Despite the grim set of his mouth and the stiffness in his shoulders, she laughed.

“I thought you were long gone by now.”

Then he plunged forward into the apartment, pushing against her chest with his so that she had to stumble backwards in order to avoid falling over.

“What the hell, John…!”

“Joss, I’m sorry.”

Behind him, a tiny woman trained a big Glock at his back.

Crystal Floyd, the cruel and mysterious muse of The Brotherhood, the leader of Dominic’s hit squad.

The machine purred a string of numbers into Joss’s ear as the other woman slammed home the metal door’s bolt to lock them in.

“Hey, Carter. I ran into your boo down the corner and he invited me up for a chat.”

“Get back, Joss.”

John’s voice was tight, the words snapped and low.

“Carter, your man’s real smart. Mostly.”

A sneer twisted Crystal’s cupid bow mouth, her eyes flashing above smooth curves of cocoa skin.

“You oughta listen to what he say.”

Joss recognized the soft scent of baby powder as it wafted from beneath the younger woman’s black leather jacket. This sweetness undercut the animal musk in an insinuating tangle Joss still found as confusing and frightening as the first time she had smelled it.

They had met in a darkened van over two months ago, gang lord Dominic hosting the tense get-together in a fetid abandoned viaduct known as the Bronx Swamp.

So Joss wasn’t completely surprised at this sudden reunion, she always figured she would meet up with Crystal Floyd again, police work and The Brotherhood being what they were.

But with the terms of this meeting out of her control, Joss felt cold dread thickening in her veins as Crystal stepped slowly toward the center of the room.

Intimate and daring, this violation proclaimed the invader’s boldness. Or announced a dark desperation that was equally dangerous.

Joss eased her hand toward the gun holstered at her waist, but the other woman caught the movement.

“Tricks’ll get you a bullet through the back of his pretty head, Carter.”

Joining words to action, Crystal raised her gun toward the angled hairline at John’s nape.

“Put it on the counter.”

Joss placed her weapon on the granite island and stepped back, her hands extended at waist height so their captor could see them.

Crystal was dressed with the dark economy of her profession: black leggings wrinkled slightly at the knees where they met scarred tan leather boots. Under the jacket, a tight black t-shirt stretched across her small breasts and tucked into a narrow belt. Shiny black hair was scraped into a low pony-tail, whose dip-dyed auburn ends draped over her shoulder.

Waving the gun in a short arc, Crystal motioned John toward the kitchen.

He obeyed, keeping his eyes on her weapon as he backed across the Persian rug. When he reached the couch, he arched a question with a dark eyebrow. At her silent nod, he shrugged off his overcoat and dropped it across the sofa arm and then resumed his retreat.

“Crystal, what do you want with us? Why did you come here?”

John’s voice was low, but Joss recognized the danger in his tone.

“I want to talk with her.” The baby-faced killer raised her chin in Joss’s direction.

“How’d you know she’d be here?”

John was bristling with suppressed energy, his staccato questions peppering the air between them.

Crystal chuckled in counterpoint to his fury and drawled out a reply designed to provoke.

“When a sister’s pot getting stirred good, she likes to keep it going regular. Now I know Carter here drops by your crib two, three nights a week, nice and regular. Getting stirred real good, like I say.”

A raised eyebrow in Joss’s direction to punctuate the vaudeville.

“But this week, Baby Girl missed Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday. So I figured she’d be plenty thirsty, show up here for sure last night. Bingo!

“Sum it short: Miss Thang got a thing for your thing!”

As John’s ears turned a dusky pink, Crystal let out a coarse laugh that rolled toward the room’s broad windows.

“Ain’t that right, Carter? Tell it true now!”

When Joss dug her fingernails into the back of the leather club chair, Crystal chuckled again and returned her attention to John.

Stung, he snapped out another question as his back touched the refrigerator door:

“What do you want to talk about?”

“Ya know, Riley, you suppose to be all silent and ghost-like. A statue in a suit, or something. So don’t get chatty with me all of a sudden. Blows the street rep.”

The smile slipped from her face.

“We’ll talk about what I want. When I want. After I get you nice and situated.”

Without taking her eyes from the target, Crystal raised her voice to throw it in a different direction.

“Carter, I know you got some cuffs in here somewhere.”

With her left hand, the gangster drew a circle around the apartment.

“Not those furry pink ones you two like to dirty-play with. The NYPD regulation kind. Find ‘em and cuff your man to the frig there. So he don’t make trouble while we girls talk.”

Under Crystal’s baleful gaze, Joss did as instructed.

Clasping one bracelet through the double handles of the refrigerator’s doors, she fastened the other around John’s right wrist. Her fingers shook as they grazed his warm skin and she stroked an apology over his pulse point.

Leaning close as she worked, Joss could feel the anger rolling off of his body, see the faint film of sweat glistening over his upper lip. Tension forced rapid breaths from him in ragged intervals. She tried to calm him by steadying her gaze and slowing her inhalations until he timed his breathing to hers.

She wanted to speak, say that everything would be alright, that two against one always prevailed.

But when her fumbling efforts with the manacles revealed a treacherous shaking, she decided to keep quiet.

As she stood back from her task, Crystal spoke up again.

“Naw, naw. Gimme the key, Carter. I’m not near as dumb as you and Fancy Face here think I am.”

Joss placed the miniature key on the island counter top and slid it a few inches toward their captor.

After she pocketed the key, Crystal seized a cold slice of wheat toast from the plate on the island.

“All you got to eat around here is this dry white people breakfast?”

Disdain flattened her upper lip, but she took two large bites anyway. Around a third mouthful, she mumbled a further comment.

“You people don't think I’m serious, hunh? Think I’m playing around here? That how you see it?”

Abruptly, Crystal pointed the Glock toward the ceiling and squeezed off two rounds.

The loud report drew a gasp from Joss, who looked to John. His icy glance and hunched shoulders frightened her even more than the gun blast itself.

Shards of plaster pelted down on the island countertop. Three sets of eyes followed snowflakes of white paint as they drifted from the brutal little crater in the ceiling.

Into the silence that followed the twin explosions, Crystal threw out more orders, a kittenish smile now stretching her lips.

“And push a stool up over there so your baby can get comfortable, for crissake! Public servant like that. Poor man’s on his feet all day long.”

As she maneuvered the stool into place, Joss leaned close again. She turned her body so that her movements were blocked from Crystal’s view and slipped a duplicate handcuff key into John’s jacket pocket.

With her forehead skimming his shoulder, she heard the distinctive crackle of his ear piece and Harold’s voice chirping a familiar message:

“We’ve got a new number at last, Mr. Reese. One that may jolt even your jaded sensibilities…”

Joss coughed to cover John’s whispered reply.

“Yeah, found her already.”


+++++++++


For fifteen minutes Crystal regaled them with stories of her life on the streets, a rollicking account of her exploits as the female chief of The Brotherhood’s murder squad. She spoke with gusto about the women she had cut, the men she had maimed, the nineteen months hard time she had booked behind bars before she turned twenty.

After a while, telling these tales seemed an end in itself, as if Crystal’s visit were a social call between club ladies. Joss sensed the woman was establishing her bona fides, letting them know that the power she exercised in this room and in the streets was earned on the city’s roughest battle fields.

Joss sat in one leather chair, Crystal in the other, both women rarely shifting their eyes from John’s coiled figure as he leaned against the stool before the refrigerator. He remained silent throughout the recital, letting Joss offer all the prompts, pushing along the narrative with quick questions or soothing murmurs as needed.

On soft clouds of baby powder, Crystal’s stories swirled around the apartment, heating its confines with her restless braggadocio. After a few minutes, Joss shrugged off her overcoat and pushed up the sleeves of her sweater.

Casual, comfortable, just like two girlfriends catching up after a long separation. Joss hoped that by letting the other woman preen and display, the danger could be contained or defused.

Joss wasn’t surprised that Crystal was the hero of every encounter, the victor at the end of every chapter. The stories spiraled into evermore fanciful legends; in her telling, Harlem heeled and the Bronx knelt at her slightest command.

Hearing about all the sad equations that defined life in so many quarters of her city made Joss feel helpless and defeated. Drugs, numbers, guns, gambling, money laundering; wherever the law created a gap between human desire and satisfaction, The Brotherhood rushed in to scratch that eternal itch.

But in Crystal’s account, the gang served other, more benign, purposes too.

“You know that rundown old community center up on Lennox Place? We bought twenty-five new basketballs for them last winter to replace the raggedy ones they had blown out.”

Joss could hear pride mellowing the harshness from her voice as Crystal continued her story.

“And we been supplying paints, pencils, charcoal, paper, and modeling clay to three afterschool programs in the South Bronx and two more in Harlem. Kept them open when the city was about to let them go under.”

The killer’s pretty face glowed with satisfaction as the rhythmic sentences rolled on.

“The Brotherhood is there for the people. Bullies beat on a kid ‘cause he got pansy ways, Brotherhood is there to protect. Runaway girl wearing a black eye from her pimp, Brotherhood is there to take her to a shelter.”

Her impassioned tones rang like a politician’s speech or a union organizer’s promise.

“Grandma afraid to cash her check, Brotherhood is there to help her too. We work streets Child Services don’t dare visit and blocks you cops ain’t cruised in years. Anywhere you look, Brotherhood is there.”

Joss wanted to disrupt the flow, redirect it without actually tossing out a blunt challenge.

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, Crystal. You’re some kind of urban legend. Annie Oakley with a little Shaka Zulu and Albert Schweitzer mixed in there for flava.”

“Who’s that?” Crystal’s eyes narrowed as if she suspected a nasty joke was hidden somewhere in the barrage of names.

“You’re the princess and the prince in this fairy tale. I get that. But what I want to know is how’d you get to be so big in The Brotherhood? What made you Dominic’s right hand?”

Crystal settled back in the enfolding chair, mollified.

“Not a long story, really. My folks moved up here from Tampa the year my big sister was born. My dad changed his last name to Floyd to get better jobs with these white people. Figueroa was just too hard for them to pronounce, he said. I came up in the Bronx just after Dominic got started there. I worked corners for a crew he ran.”

Crystal’s eyes took on a warmer hue as the morning sun caught them, cognac flickering in their smoky brown depths. Joss guessed she was enjoying this chance to share her life story, to reflect a little on where she had been and how far she had come.

As the sole female in a cadre bound together by machismo, Crystal didn’t get much chance to speak out loud, Joss figured. Talking woman to woman like this was probably a precious rarity in her life.

“My boss was Dominic’s best lieutenant. Little fella, always sharp dressed. Name Roger, but everybody called him ‘Carnage’ because of this one time he offed eight gangbangers in one raid. Tossed a collection house, saved Dominic’s life too. After that they all called him ‘Carnage’ out of respect, ‘cause didn’t nobody want to go up against him ever again.”

Crystal smiled at the bloody memory and ran a hand over her flame-licked pony tail. She was on a roll, the gangland glamour of her life’s arc glittering as she spoke.

“Carnage taught me everything I know about the business. About reading people, figuring out where their heart’s at, studying their eyes, learning their moves, getting so far inside their heads you know all their drama, all their dreams.”

She nodded her own head as she recited the lessons of Carnage.

“Knowing when they lying to save they own sorry ass or bullshitting to hide a mistake somebody else made. Or getting ready to sell you out or screw you over. Fucking them before they fuck you. Carnage, he knew when to pull a smile and when to pull the trigger.”

Joss nodded too and she let a small smile tug at her lips.

So this demi-god Carnage was the source of Crystal’s remarkable powers of intuition and the eerie clairvoyance Joss had witnessed in their last meeting in the Swamp.

She noticed that as Crystal wove her tales like some Bronx-born Scheherazade, John leaned forward slightly on the stool, these insights into the internal dynamics of The Brotherhood holding his full attention.

Finally, he threw a question to prime the flow of information.

“And you were a good student, hunh? Got all A’s in Carnage’s classroom?”

“Yeah, I did.”

Pride ripe and unfettered poured from her now.

“Carnage said I was the best he’d ever seen – pimps, hawkers, cutters, runners, lamp posters, dustmen, baggers, sweat skimmers -– none of ‘em better than me.”

“And you were his prize disciple.”

John again, voice slow and so warm it surprised Joss even as it cajoled their captor.

“Yeah, I was. Am. Can’t nobody beat Baby Carnage at the game."

“Baby Carnage?”

John’s question sent a shiver down Joss’s back as Crystal stood from her chair. Breast high and proud, neck arched long, she stalked to the window, raising her voice as she moved.

“That’s what they called me after Carnage passed. ‘Cause when it happened, I was the one Dominic picked to step up, to take his place, work by his side in a position of trust.”

John’s interruption was still soft, but frosted now with sarcasm:

“And so ‘Baby Carnage,’ now Dominic’s sent you here. To do what? Kill us? Rough us up? Deliver another message?”

His taut voice cut through the room, the whisper emphasizing the sardonic tones of the next thrust. Joss knew he was trying to pull Crystal’s attention back toward him, to draw her fire with these prods.

“I got his first little love note -- the one from the Bronx Swamp.”

Crystal whipped her head in his direction, but said nothing.

John shifted his weight on the stool and rattled the cuff with impatience.

“So what’s your boss got for me now, Baby Carnage?”

Her eyes, which had been soft and caramel colored with fond remembrance despite the violence of her stories, resumed their cooler bronze cast.

“Dominic didn’t send me.”

She paused and Joss noticed a new quaver in the raspy voice.

“I came here on my own account.”


Continued

Fic: Dominion
blacktop50
Title: Dominion
Author: blacktop
Characters: Joss Carter, Dominic, OC
Rating: PG-13
Warning: Hoodlum crime
Word count: 5,300
Summary: When her extended family is threatened, an undaunted Carter marches straight into the urban swamp to confront Dominic, the composed and ruthless leader of The Brotherhood. Spoilers for several episodes of season four.





Carter crept up the familiar stairs on tip toes, hoping that the waves of noise from the boisterous dinner crowd below would muffle her tread. She didn’t want to awaken the stricken little girl lying asleep in John’s bed. But she did want to see for herself that the child was unharmed.

She hadn’t visited this room, John’s old apartment above Pooja’s restaurant, since he had been forced to abandon it last summer.

He assumed that the surveillance of the marauding super intelligence Samaritan was pervasive and he needed to erase any links to his previous life as John Reese, including this beloved safe haven.

So when he left he hadn’t given his landlady, Mrs. Soni, an explanation for his hurried departure, simply telling her that he needed to take a new job and would be in touch when he could.

John’s description of this exchange with Mrs. Soni had been terse, his tone laced with bitterness and regret. Carter understood he needed to establish the new identity of Detective Riley, so she didn’t press him about it, letting the sorrow creasing his brow stand as the final commentary on that sad separation.

Over the summer, Carter had returned to the restaurant several times, usually for weekend dinners with her son, twice for lunch with her partner Fusco. Each visit, she had managed a brief private interlude with Mrs. Soni, just enough time to assure the old woman that John was hidden but safe.

The relief that flooded Mrs. Soni’s face during those conversations made Carter’s heart contract with chagrin. She wanted to say so much more, but she realized that expanding the account would only heighten the danger for John as well as his former landlady. Mrs. Soni seemed to intuit this double-edged peril and never asked any questions. She simply clasped her hands tighter in the skirts of her sari and nodded at Carter’s assurances that John was eating well and had a clean place to sleep, smiling wanly at these nondescript images of his new life in hiding.

Now Carter was making a return visit to Pooja’s, but under mysterious and unsettling circumstances.

Mrs. Soni had phoned her at five in the afternoon, abruptly demanding an interview, but giving no clue as to what was the matter. The old woman’s voice was strained and higher pitched than normal; her sentences clipped into a formality Carter had rarely heard before. Indeed the last time Mrs. Soni had spoken in such an abrupt manner, she had been serving breakfast to mob boss Carl Elias, held captive in her kitchen after Carter had rescued him from assassination.

So when Carter had arrived at the restaurant’s back door, she was braced for bad news of some sort.

“Detective Carter, thank you for coming so quickly.”

Mrs. Soni’s round face was gray with anxiety as she pulled her visitor into the little office off the kitchen. She sat down heavily in her rolling desk chair then nodded at a metal seat which Carter took without removing her overcoat.

“What’s going on Mrs. Soni? You in some trouble? How can I help?”

Carter didn’t mind ferreting out puzzles, but a mystery affecting people she treasured was frightening.

Shifting the folds of her dark green sari higher on her shoulder, the old woman pulled a square handkerchief from the short sleeve of her blouse and wiped her eyes.

“Bijal, my granddaughter…You know her…”

Mrs. Soni hiccupped a sob that she captured in her handkerchief.

During visits with John at the restaurant, Carter had met Mrs. Soni’s four grandchildren many times -- nine year old Bijal, her big sister Avani and younger cousins Leena and Hari. Carter found the children to be spirited, curious, polite, and completely enamored of their tall and secretive tenant.

“Yes, of course, I know her. What’s the matter with Bijal, Mrs. Soni?”

“You know she comes here to the restaurant most days after school. Almost every day, Avani walks with her too, but this afternoon Avani had a club meeting, so Bijal walked alone.”

Tears streamed down Mrs. Soni’s cheeks and landed on the smooth brown skin of her collarbones. Carter wanted to reach out to catch the dripping mess, but held back. Instead she took the old woman’s hand, squeezing it in both of hers.

“It’s only four blocks away and she walks the distance every day without incident. All the neighbors watch out for her, all the shopkeepers know her.”

Carter nodded encouragement, trying to strike a compassionate balance between offering comfort and pressing forward with the story.

“Is Bijal O.K.? Where is she now?”

She wanted to leap to the end of the narrative, but Mrs. Soni’s rhetorical style required a roundabout approach, even in a crisis.

“Today on her walk here, two men approached her. They jumped out of a black van and said they needed to talk with her and would give her a present after they were done. Bijal is a smart girl, too smart for that, and she refused to get into the van. But they grabbed her and pulled her into the van anyway.

“They told her they had an important message and only she could deliver it.”

Here Mrs. Soni paused to wipe her mouth and eyes again.

“A message? What kind of message?”

Carter felt the frantic beating of her heart escalate as her friend’s story wound to its climax.

“So the two men, they opened her coat and used a safety pin to fasten a piece of paper to the strap of her school uniform. When she struggled with them, the jumper tore. The waist ripped on the left side and buttons popped off too.

“But they got the note pinned on her just like they said they would.”

“Oh, Mrs. Soni! Is she all right? I have to see her.”

“These men, these strangers, stopped their van directly in front of the restaurant and pushed Bijal out onto the sidewalk. She skinned her knees when she fell.”

Mrs. Soni touched her own knee, pinching the fabric of her sari between two shaking fingers as she spoke.

“Where is she now?”

“After I cleaned up her bloodied knees, I read the note pinned on her jumper. Then I undressed her. She was unharmed apart from the scraped knees, thank God!"

Mrs. Soni pressed a hand to her mouth and then to her heavy bosom. But the relief in her words did not rise to her eyes, which were round with grief, shock, and some other emotion which Carter read as accusation.

The old woman swiveled in her chair and lifted from the floor behind her a dark pile of clothing. Bijal’s torn school uniform. She held out the navy and green plaid jumper at arm’s length, the ripped waistband gaping. Carter could see brick red spots of dried blood staining the skirt’s frayed hem.

“And so I washed her face and body and gave her clean clothes to wear. Then I sent her upstairs to rest in John’s room. She’s there now, safe and sleeping comfortably.”

Mrs. Soni stopped speaking, her story finished. But for one detail, the content of the note.

Since she had omitted it until now, Carter understood that the message was somehow the key to the matter. She felt her stomach clutch in dread.

“What did it say? The note Bijal brought?”

Mrs. Soni pushed back from her desk and tugged on its center drawer. From the cluttered interior tray, she drew out a white half-sheet of heavy paper, which she handed to Carter. The page was folded in quarters, its creases sharply delineated, the silver safety pin still glittering in one corner.

“You may read it, Detective Carter. It’s for you.”


XXXXXXXXX


On her way up the steps to John’s room, Carter thought over the meaning of the typewritten note. It was a succinct summons from the head of The Brotherhood.

In it, Dominic, the boss of this rising hoodlum gang, had been clear and menacing:

“Detective Jocelyn Carter. Meet up 8:00 tonight. North end Bronx Swamp. Alone or your family suffers. Don’t show and your family suffers.”

Carter knew the Bronx Swamp by foul reputation.

The proposed location for the meeting was a mile-long stretch of derelict rail line known as the Port Morris branch. Though the tracks dated from the 1840s, it had been abandoned by Conrail in 2003 when its tight curves and low tunnel under St. Mary’s park made it impassable for modern freight cars.

The area wasn’t truly a swamp, just a water-laden sink, undrained and neglected. She remembered the 2009 headlines when the city’s Department of Environmental Protection had used hydraulic pumps to draw more than six hundred gallons of stagnant water from the site. The project wasn’t a success, the city threw up its hands, and the Bronx Swamp remained a boggy mess.

She had only driven past it a few times, but colleagues from the 40th Precinct regaled her with stomach-churning tales of the rotting cross ties, putrid waters, and decades of neighborhood trash collected at the underpass. At one point, the railroad company had to mandate that all its trains running through the borough be equipped with snow plows year round to make their way through the debris tossed onto the tracks from the street above the noxious Bronx Swamp.

Alone or your family suffers.

Dominic’s idea of a rendezvous spot reeked, quite literally.

Now, arriving at the door to John’s old room, she gently pressed it open.

A narrow slice of yellow light from the stairwell pierced the darkened space. She could make out Bijal’s small form under the garish pink embroidered coverlet on the bed. The little girl was sleeping, curled into a defensive comma, knees against her chest, her black hair loosed from its braids to trail over John’s pillow. As she watched the shallow movement of the child’s chest for several minutes, Carter marveled that even in the aftermath of such trauma, Bijal could smile at a pleasant dream.

Don’t show and your family suffers.

Carter assumed that Dominic was referring to Taylor, perhaps her mother as well. But the circle was much wider than that now. If she didn’t make the appointment as demanded, she knew others might pay the price too. Lionel, Shaw, John, even Harold could be harmed. Bijal had already suffered this afternoon, as had Mrs. Soni.

There was no doubt that The Brotherhood intended to inflict damage as widely as it could across the city, using terror to achieve its criminal aims. If she could intercept the gangsters now, at the start of their rise to power, perhaps she could thwart them.

Images of strangling a writhing octopus in its crib leapt to her mind. She saw clammy tentacles wrapped around her wrist, squeezing until the veins bulged. But if she choked hard enough she was sure she could still get the job done and end the Brotherhood’s life in its infancy.

There was no alternative. She had to undertake tonight’s operation, regardless of the risk. And she had to do it without letting John know her plans. If she told him, he would follow her, guard her, perhaps even resort to force to prevent her from making the appointment with Dominic. Her foray to the Bronx Swamp had to be a solo expedition, a lightning strike without support.

Resolved, she pulled the pink coverlet up to Bijal’s chin and stroked the curling black hair as it lay on the pillow, breathing a promise against the child’s smooth brown forehead.


XXXXXXXXX


Carter left her sedan on a street bordering St. Mary’s park and walked the three blocks to the viaduct that overhung the Bronx Swamp. A derelict century-old shirtwaist factory and an abandoned tool works plant offered their pane-less windows as witness to her passage through the neighborhood.

In the precinct locker room she had changed to black jeans and turtleneck, zipped under black leather. She had jammed a black beret over her hair, slanting it down almost to her eyebrows. At the park, she left her watch and cell phone in the car, arming herself with only a revolver in her waistband and a knife tucked inside her right boot.

She clambered down the incline from the street at the north end of the railway underpass, hanging on to naked branches as she descended. A seven foot high retaining wall caused her to hesitate: jump and risk twisting an ankle or dangle from the concrete overhang to make the shorter fall to the uneven ground below. She chose to drop from the wall, landing on a pile of bricks and a garbage can cover.

Glinting in the shadows of the underpass, she could see the outline of a black Escalade, its headlights extinguished, but its motor humming.

As she walked toward the vehicle, three figures slid forward from the shadows on either side of the van.

The three men were of approximately the same age, mid- to late- twenties. Tall and lean, with skin colors ranging from deep tan to plum black, Carter assumed these were lieutenants in the Brotherhood, none of them had the carriage or authority to be the main man.

They weren’t in uniform exactly, but dressed in similar somber colors -- black, gray, one wore a sharp-tailored cloth vest over his navy sweater—they gave off a quasi-military air. Their hair styles were similar too, close cropped, although one man affected a high top with shorn sides, while another’s balding scalp shone in the scant moon light.

She spoke first, taking the initiative to show she wasn’t intimidated.

“None of you fellas are the Boss. He wouldn’t get his feet wet down here until he was sure I’d come alone. Am I right?”

When they said nothing, she advanced closer, stepping around a stained mattress and several wooden crates, the slats sticking up at precarious angles. She kicked at the remnants of a rotted rail tie and its splinters skittered across the ground to land at the feet of the man in the vest.

“Classy digs you got here. The Brotherhood really knows how to show a girl a good time, hunh?”

The man with the high top motioned her forward with his drawn gun.

When she was beside him, his comrade in navy patted her down with rough strokes, grunting when he found the revolver at the small of her back. He showed it to High Top.

“Shorty was packing, Curtis. Whatcha want me to do with it?”

Curtis shrugged, seized the weapon, and turned his eyes toward the van’s blank windshield. He tilted his head to the right, as if waiting for a command.

“Get in here.”

The order from the vehicle rumbled low and hollow, like an echo, so muted Carter wasn’t positive she had heard anything at all.

But the three men jumped away from her at the sound, creating a path to guide her to the Cadillac’s left side rear door.

She climbed in and waited in silence as her eyes adjusted to the dark interior. Smoky sandalwood blended with the softer smells of baby powder and new leather in the close atmosphere of the van.

Dominic wasn’t as she had pictured him. She had imagined a wiry man with a hard face and the weathered hands of a longshoreman.

But the man slumped next to her on the rear bench of the van was barely more than a boy. His plump brown cheeks were poreless, as though he had never shaved. The dark pouting lips pursed disproportionately small within the curve of his long jaw. His eyes, when he finally turned them on her, were small too, softly glowing with a hesitation she might have found endearing in other circumstances. He seemed shy to meet her, an impression reinforced by his hunched shoulders and lowered head. His hands had pickpocket’s fingers, long, slender, and clever. The tense clench of his fists against his soft belly set her nerves jangling.

“You came on time.”

Dominic’s first words carried a surprised tone, which he quickly erased with his next phrase.

“Smart move. I don’t like to wait.”

“Yeah, I’m here. Your invitation was hard to pass up.”

“I needed to get your attention and guarantee your cooperation.”

“Well, you got my attention. But I’m not guaranteeing anything. What do you want?”

Dominic turned his massive head away from her and looked out to the tunnel’s inky cavern.

“To talk.”

“So talk. Or are you waiting for an even bigger audience?”

Carter tilted her chin toward the shadowy figure in the driver’s seat in front of her. The boss’s face flashed a genuine smile then, but one so fleeting that Carter doubted her own eyesight.

“That’s Floyd. She sticks with me. Turn around, Crystal, and let Detective Carter meet you proper.”

The woman who craned her neck to catch Carter’s eye was no more than twenty years old, tiny and cocoa colored with delicate snub features slashed by a sneering smile. She pulled back the black hood of her sweatshirt, folding it around her neck after flipping out a long glossy pony tail.

“Carter.” Her voice was raspy and guarded, but confident.

“Crystal. The pleasure’s all mine.”

Carter felt old and cranky and she wanted to jab at both baby gangsters with a show of excess politeness.

Formalities done, Dominic took the lead.

“I want to talk with you about Detective John Riley.”

Carter felt her heart flip in dread at this turn.

“Riley? What about him?”

“He’s your boyfriend.”

Dominic offered this as a statement of bland fact rather than a question, but she had to challenge the assumption.

“Says who? Riley works in my precinct, that’s all. No boyfriend, just a colleague.”

Carter shifted in her seat, turning her shoulders to stare at the mob boss.

In response, Dominic barked out a command, as if calling upon a data base for an elaboration of the equations underlying the claim.

“Crystal?”

The younger woman raised her eyes to catch Carter’s glance in the rear view mirror. After a pause, she spoke without turning her head.

“She lying. He banging her back out, for sure.”

Crystal snapped off that accusation and then launched into the explanation, her cool gaze pinned on Carter throughout the speech.

“Yellow roses Riley brought to her apartment in September – eighth or ninth maybe. That wasn’t no crap bodega bouquet for twelve ninety five. Real fancy roses, that two dozen’ll set you back one hundred and seventy-five, eighty easy, maybe more.”

Carter shuddered in remembrance.

John’s extravagant gift of yellow roses had been the start of a dazzling birthday festivity, one he said she deserved because it was the first time they could celebrate her special day in public together.

Crystal continued her account.

“On a cop’s salary, that’s no chump change. So yeah, nice-looking dude like that? He tasted the honey, drank real deep, I’d say, real deep."

Her lip curled up in triumph, Crystal defied Carter to deny the conclusion.

Dominic took up the conversation when Carter remained silent.

“Riley’s been messing in the middle of several of my operations recently. He interfered with movement of some of my property…”

“You mean Colombian cocaine, don’t you?”

The question burst from Carter almost before she had time to consider whether it was wise to interrupt.

“…and he blocked me when I asserted my authority over my own people.”

Now the interruption was planned. She wasn’t going to let him finish his story without the corrections and she could see the needling was getting under his skin.

“That time you wanted to murder some kids who stumbled into your filthy schemes and took a piss-ant amount of cash, right?”

Dominic’s voice turned wheedling and small.

“I wasn’t going to hurt that little brother, just give him some much needed instruction in the way the world works.”

“The world according to Dominic, hunh? The way I heard it, that little brother wasn’t fooled by you and neither was Riley. You got played by a twelve year old and a white cop, Dominic.”

It took several deep breaths for Dominic to regain his composure after her disruptions, his agitated state revealed by flaring nostrils and a fixed stare.

“I’m going to overlook your poor manners, Detective, as well as your ignorance of the facts.”

His thick chest rose and fell in a ponderous rhythm, his black t-shirt tightening over clenched biceps.

“When I was in seventh grade I took art class from Mrs. Pappas.”

He looked at Carter to see if she would challenge this seeming digression. She shrugged and raised her eyebrows; the stage was his to command again.

“We didn’t have much in the way of supplies, only what Mrs. Pappas could buy with her own money – paper, charcoals, sometimes water color paints. I loved that class, I got to the studio early every Thursday all year long. I just wanted to fill up every corner of every page with sketches, pictures, shapes and words. Everything I had going on in my mind I wanted to get down on that paper.”

He shook his head in wonder, the residual excitement of those artistic hours burning in his dark eyes. Then a frown crumpled the broad expanse of his brow.

“Usually my teachers ignored me. They were just happy if I stayed quiet in the back of the classroom.

“But Mrs. Pappas, she encouraged me, said all kinds of nice things about my drawings: imaginative, creative, gifted. Stuff like that. I don’t know if she meant any of it, but it was nice to hear anyway. Kept me going when things were pretty bleak all around.

“But then one time Mrs. Pappas said something I’ll never forget. She told me that sometimes the spaces you leave blank can carry as much information as the ones you crowd with lines and images. She called it ‘negative space.’ ”

Dominic paused, his eyes growing filmy as he peered back into his childhood art studio.

“Negative space is like a pause between the lines of a song, making the words stand out more sharply, highlighting the ideas by defining the boundaries. Negative space is the quiet, the absence that brings balance and meaning to a composition. That’s what Mrs. Pappas said.”

Dominic stopped his story and pinned Carter with a laser glare.

“And that’s what I need from Riley now: quiet absence. I need him to be the negative space around my operations. I want him to stay out of my business, away from my people. And I want him to stand clear when I make my move.”

Carter took up the thread of the conversation, now that the reminiscing was over.

“So you’re planning to make a move in the city, are you? I’m guessing you mean a strike against Elias’s organization.”

Dominic nodded, his eyes chilly within the wrinkles of a smile.

“The old lion’s day is done. He either retires gracefully or gets trampled.”

“And by ‘gracefully’ you mean Elias should agree to be assassinated in a quiet little restaurant on some side street in Brooklyn.”

Now the smile burst full blown, its spark highlighting his youthful looks.

“Right, that would be preferable. Or he can launch an all-out war. Many of his people will get cut down in the battle and plenty of innocent civilians too. Choice is up to Elias, but the outcome is certain.”

Disruptions forgotten, calm again, Dominic’s face was glowing at the prospect of a bloody confrontation with the reigning gangland king.

“If Elias choses to go down fighting, he will lose. No way around it. Bulgarians, Irish, Russians, Mexican cartel, Trinitarians. All of them gangbangers came up against me and all of them bent the knee. Now Elias’s time is over. My time is dawning.”

“So I carry this message to Riley and then what?”

“Then Riley stays on the sidelines. Clears the field for me. Him and that little piece with the stringy black pony tail who’s his back up. They both need to take long vacations when the war comes.”

Carter knew he meant Shaw, but she folded her eyebrows together to mimic ignorance, hoping to keep Dominic’s knowledge of her circle as clouded as possible.

“Oh, come on. You saying you don’t know who Riley runs with? That little bitch underestimated me real good – chippy and clueless at the same time, a dangerous combination in somebody carrying such a big gun. You ought to keep closer track of who your man associates with. Help him stay alive.”

Carter let the implied insult slide.

“So now I’m your messenger boy, carrying notes just like that little girl your men messed with this afternoon.”

“My men didn’t mess with any little girl. They operate under strict orders from me. My rule is we respect girls and women like they were all our own mothers.”

“Yeah, well your little rule got broken this afternoon, Dominic. I saw her torn dress. And the blood on her skirts was hard to miss too.”

At this, a wrathful cloud darkened Dominic’s face. Carter saw the veins at the sides of his neck bulge, and the meaty blocks of his hands clutched at his thighs in anger.

He lowered the glass on the right side window and without actually shouting, he projected his voice into the void of the black tunnel.

“Curtis, get over here!”

The lieutenant scurried into place, his high-topped head framed in the window.

“What’s up, Boss?” His eyes darted from Dominic’s face to Carter’s, trying to assess the situation.

“Tell me about that girl today. Did you touch her?”

“Well, I pinned that note on her dress. Just like you told us, Boss. That’s all.”

“Did you touch her?”

“I never did! And that’s the truth. I swear on my momma’s grave.”

“Don’t tell me about your mother’s grave, Curtis. I know exactly how she got in it and who put her there.”

Carter leaned forward to interrupt, an inkling of the fatal import of her accusation scratching at her mind.

“The torn dress, the blood, I saw it with my own eyes.”

Dominic bellowed at his baby-faced driver, demanding a resolution.

“Crystal!”

The oracular voice from the shadows of the front seat rolled through the sandalwood and smoke:

“He lying.”

Dominic raised his hand, powerful fingers curved around a Glock.

Before the hapless Curtis could get off a further word of protest, his boss fired a single bullet through his eye.

His head framed in the van’s open window, Carter could see that the blast tore apart the socket and took off a quarter of the forehead, exposing its red interior like raw meat in the butcher’s shop. Then the dead man slumped to the ground, disappearing from the scene, his role finished.

She hadn’t meant for Curtis to die, to pay for his insult to Bijal in this final manner. She told herself that she had hoped Dominic would simply reprimand this lieutenant with a few harsh words, maybe a slap across the face, as a lesson to the other thugs in his command.

But if she was honest with herself, she admitted that she had anticipated Dominic’s brutal response to her provocation from the start. If Dominic’s reaction was disproportionate, that was beyond her control.

She had intended to cause mayhem in his organization, to disrupt the elemental bonds of trust that ran like connective tissue through the body of The Brotherhood. She wanted to rip apart the confidence Dominic had in his soldiers and that they had in him.

Or your family suffers.

She aimed to make his family suffer as he had made hers.

If she had achieved even a small success in that effort this night, then her promise to Bijal was fulfilled.


XXXXXXXXX


The drive through the city was silent, each passenger in the black van contemplating an unknowable future. Carter didn’t fear for her life or that of any one dear to her that night.

She didn’t think John would receive the request from Dominic with anything but derision, she was confident he would disregard the message from The Brotherhood. She didn’t think he would openly join forces with Elias, not yet. But threats from Dominic, especially in the form of an order to stand down, would only serve to push him in Elias’s direction, she felt certain.

Carter had thought Dominic would blindfold her to prevent her from discovering his favored paths through the boroughs. But he scoffed at the idea.

“I’m not going anyplace you don’t know, Detective. No secrets here, my operations are transparent.”

Crystal played mellow jazz on the ride across town. Cerebral Coltrane and long, involved cuts from Thelonious Monk wafted through the van’s interior from WBGO, The Jazz Source out of Newark. Carter wondered if the musical accompaniment reflected Dominic’s tastes or those of his driver savant.

After an hour of meandering, the van pulled up to a twelve foot high chain link fence, its gate sealed by a fearsome padlock. Dominic handed Crystal a key and while she wrestled open the heavy gate, he pulled a set of plastic ties from his pocket. He motioned to Carter to extend her wrists at waist height and fastened the cuffs over them.

“Just a minor inconvenience. I just want to make sure you don’t get out of here too fast.”

Once they had rolled the van inside the gate, they drove slowly across the grassy interior of an oval track, stopping near a high stand of slatted seats overlooking the track.

“Get out.”

Dominic was as abrupt now as he had been expansive earlier in the evening.

Carter obeyed, standing beside the van, leaning slightly so that her chest touched its ice cold door. She wanted to hear Dominic’s last words.

“You won’t be stuck here long, I expect. What with that cute knife you got hidden in your boot.”

She lowered her eyes, feeling as exposed and transparent as Dominic claimed to be.

He swiveled his huge head to scan the entire field and the dark buildings hulking at the far end of the enclosure.

“I guess you know where you are now, so I figure you can get home pretty easily from here, even without your cell.”

Dominic returned his blazing eyes to her face, lifting his chin in farewell.

“Take care of yourself, Carter. Tell Riley I’m counting on his cooperation.”

No smile, not even a nod. The window glided back into place and Crystal hit the gas pedal.

Carter shivered in the cold wave of air left in the wake of the van’s departure. As she watched it roll into the shadows, she reflected on this last unspoken message from Dominic. She did indeed know this place. These were the playing fields behind Taylor’s high school.

No space was sacred, no relationship off limits in the coming war. The Brotherhood’s reach was long and its grasp something to be dreaded.

As she bent to fish the knife from her boot she heard the grumbling engine of a light car behind her.

Crystal had left the padlock unfastened and the chain link gate ajar. Across the track, her own sedan was barreling down on her, kicking up dust as it raced forward.

John.

He had traced her abandoned cell, appropriated her car, and trailed Dominic’s van from its lair in the Bronx Swamp.

As the car skidded to a halt a few yards from her position, squinting into the headlight’s glare she could see John’s tight expression and narrowed eyes.

She braced for explanations, recriminations, tough pleading, quiet anger, and perhaps a goodly share of tears too.

These were their lot in this war, it seemed, burdens they could never entirely set aside.

But if she and John could shoulder it together, the war’s awful load of pain and terror could be managed and their family’s suffering made less onerous, she was sure of that.

Fic: In Treatment: A Policeman's Lot
blacktop50
Title: In Treatment: A Policeman's Lot
Author: blacktop
Characters: John Reese, Lionel Fusco, Joss Carter, Minor Character
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Sensitive mental health issues
Word count: 5,550
Summary: The formal psych evaluation was mandatory and it required a deft touch to dodge giving away too much, but for Reese, this peeling back of inner desires was a revelation. Spoilers for Season 4, Episode 5 "Prophets"






Kissing Carter in public was a new phenomenon; one Reese was not entirely comfortable with yet.

He wasn’t sure what the machine had had in mind when it created the persona of Detective John Riley early in the summer. And things grew even murkier when it had assigned him to the same precinct as Fusco and Carter.

Coincidence wasn’t an acceptable explanation for the move, according to Finch, who was convinced that the machine had an over-arching vision, one which furthered its war aims in the twilight struggle with the other super AI, Samaritan.

Was the machine playing some long-strategy game? Or just tickling its over-active fancy with this corny Riley maneuver? He wondered if the machine was trying to manipulate him psychologically, maybe teach him a personal lesson or deal him a job-related smack down to correct past behaviors. Perhaps it wanted to test his stamina or patience or maybe train him in new skills useful for the battle to come.

No matter what the machine’s mysterious objectives might be, or what it had in store for him, he figured the new assignment opened up avenues which he could explore on his own initiative. If the machine was dissatisfied, it would just have to deal with it.

In his view, working out in the open as a fellow officer in the Eighth Precinct allowed Detective John Riley free rein to court his colleague, Detective Joss Carter. He could launch a focused campaign, characterized by optimism mixed with the right amount of caution, deliberate and confident, but not too cock-eyed pushy either. Riley was brash, even charming, but he couldn’t act as if the outcome was in the bag.

Over the first weeks of their new office collaboration, Riley had asked Carter for a few dates, but only after seeking the advice of his partner Detective Fusco on the etiquette and office politics of such affairs.

Fusco, as it turned out, didn’t need to be instructed on his role in this charade of manners. He was a natural at this kind of thing. Instead, it was the machine’s new-born creation Riley who had to rehearse his lines in advance so that the new persona would appear natural.

Of course his interest in Carter -- either as himself or as Riley or as Reese -- was completely unforced and easy to inject into conversations around the precinct.

So after Riley’s fourth inquiry in three weeks on the same subject, Fusco had chosen a steamy afternoon in early August as the time to bring things to a head.

With exasperation creasing his face, he had pushed aside a stack of case files and settled a well-padded haunch on a corner of his partner’s desk. With much huffing and clearing of throat, he had leaned over to deliver the climactic scene, an admonishing finger pointed at the newcomer.

Although their faces were close together, Fusco had made sure to raise his voice so that the choir of hovering detectives and unis could hear the sermon clearly. Even Captain Moreno had emerged from her office clutching a photo array as a pretext, sauntering with measured indifference across the squad room to witness the unfolding drama.

With the audience assembled, Fusco let rip.

“Look, Riley, I don’t know how you Narcotics boys handle it, but around here, dipping your pen in the company inkwell is frowned upon. Especially pens of newbies like you, Riley. You ain’t been around here near long enough to earn that kinda privilege yet.”

Fusco’s warning was loud and clear; he had a real knack for the theatrical moment.

Reese could see the ears of the men at the other end of the squad room perk up at the supposed confrontation. The tops of his own ears had started to tingle, a sure sign that a flush was rising along the back of his neck. Getting dressed down in public, even for a good cause, was unnerving.

“Makes for messy blow-ups, ya know, the kind I’m not about to clean up after.”

He felt the finger wagging was over the top, but he let Fusco improvise. And his partner was on a roll.

“But seeing as all those hormones crashing around are gonna do what they do, and human nature can’t be chained up for long without it doing some kinda serious damage, you gotta do what you gotta do.”

The shrug and eye-roll were eloquent punctuation to this philosophical observation. When Fusco paused, he had figured it was his cue to speak.

“So, you’re not going to block me if I make my play for Carter. Is that how I read it, Fusco?”

He had kept his voice cool, but several notes higher than his normal whisper so that it would carry all the way to the cheap seats.

Then Fusco had risen from the desk to return to his own.

“Like I said, Riley, you gotta do what you gotta do.”

But he had tossed a final dramatic caution over his shoulder:

“Just don’t come crying to me when she gives you the heave-ho, get it?”

Warning delivered, threat received, markers laid, lines drawn.

At that moment, as if cued by an unseen prompter, Carter had entered the scene, her lunch break over. She strolled to her desk with a raised eyebrow and a sardonic smile, flipping her dark gray blazer over the chair back as she sat down.

“Hey, fellas, how’s it going? Did I miss anything?”

Suddenly busy, every man in the squad room averted his eyes as she scanned the crowd. Captain Moreno skated back to her office, amusement twitching on her lips.

Rifling through a sheaf of papers on her blotter, Carter zapped a bolt in his direction.

“Any news from the M.E. on that Bronkowski autopsy, Riley? You know, you gotta ride ‘em hard or they’ll keep you waiting for weeks on a simple stabbing.”

“So I’ve heard, Detective Carter, so I’ve heard.”

With their cover story thus established as a precinct-wide certainty, Fusco seemed satisfied, his fretting dialed down to an occasional whine. Finch remained watchful, composed and withdrawn. Shaw had started with a trickle of discreet teasing, but then when she thought Finch couldn’t hear, she unleashed a torrent of dirty jokes straight from the school yard.

And as the weeks went by, the machine gave assent through inaction; despite his fears, it didn’t intervene by transferring Detective Riley to a new job.


+++++++++


So now they could kiss in public: Riley could kiss Detective Carter, Reese could kiss Joss, he could kiss his own true love.

They didn’t do it often; she was reserved, which suited his own natural modesty and the reticence drilled into them by more than two years of a risky and fugitive affair.

But here on this dreary late October afternoon, he wanted to kiss her in public and, Samaritan be damned, he would.

Rain pelted down on the windshield of her sedan, and hurrying pedestrians cowered under their black umbrellas. She hadn’t turned off the motor; they were just idling at the curb as she dropped him off for his appointment, a banal moment for most couples, but one that tingled with newness for him.

Of course, as always, even the most commonplace phrases took on an uncommon quality whenever they spoke in private.

“If it keeps raining like this, and temperatures drop, roads are going to turn tricky tonight, so be careful on the way home.”

He knew he sounded like a cliché suburban husband with that trivial warning, even though his concern was genuine.
But then her next comment turned the ordinariness of his remark inside out.

“Yeah, that’s just what it said: ‘Be Careful.’

Joss tapped her earpiece to indicate the machine was in touch with her.

“You heard from it recently? I thought it had gone radio silent.”

The machine had first contacted Joss six months prior, sending an erratic but compelling stream of messages, instructions, and questions over the summer. A mercurial intelligence with boundless curiosity, the machine seemed to want to learn as much about her as it wanted to tell her what to do.

He wondered once again how she juggled it all – son, job, super computer, him-- but Joss seemed to adjust to this new complication in her life with poise.

“This morning was the first time in six days I’ve heard a peep.”

“What do you think it means by that?”

She shrugged, vexation quirking her mouth.

“I don’t know, just a variation on what it’s been saying to me for weeks now.”

Responding to his raised eyebrow, she elaborated.

“Sometimes it’s the full phrase like that: ‘Be Careful.’ Other times it’s just a single word: ‘Careful’ or ‘Care.’ Twice all I could catch was a sound: ‘Keh.’ Still in my dad’s low voice like always, but squeaked out through lots of static like it was being smothered or something.

“Short or long, always the same warning.”

She paused, teeth worrying her lower lip.

“Trouble ahead?” Although it was a question, he tried to make his voice as firm as he could.

Her fingers flexed on the steering wheel.

“Yeah, maybe. Don’t know for sure yet.”

He reached for her hand, squeezing to transmit a certainty he wasn’t sure he possessed. And then she smiled at him and, though her eyes retained a wistful hesitation, everything seemed to brighten around him.

His heart pounded with an unfamiliar pride when she tilted her cheek to him, the movement easy and nonchalant; she didn’t resist when instead he tipped her chin to angle her mouth toward him.

A peck was all he needed now, a quick burst of passion pressed against her warm lips, answering her unspoken question with a pledge: Yes. His answers to her could always be yes now. Not maybe. Or I don’t know. Or no. Just yes. Forever yes.

“Verona’s at seven tonight, you know.” She sounded chipper, confident again.

“They get crowded on Thursday’s so they won’t hold the reservation for more than fifteen minutes.”

“Even for friends of Fusco’s?”

He smiled at the thought of the restaurant outing, a normal date for two normal people, buffeted by extraordinary dangers, but ordinary all the same.

“John Riley isn’t all that close a friend of Fusco, not from what I hear.”

Laughing, she squeezed his hand in hers and then brought it to her mouth for a different kind of kiss. Pursing her lips, she slid his index finger inside, letting it play with her tongue for a moment. She lowered her lids, lashes fluttering with the thickening excitement, but then her eyes flashed open again.

“Speaking of being on time, you need to get going, Mr. Detective. NYPD is paying big bucks for this session with Dr. Campbell, so you’d better not blow it by arriving late. They’ll garnish Detective Riley’s paycheck to cover the loss, you can count on it!”

At that, he sprang from the car, a loopy grin plastered on his face, undimmed by the rain. Trotting for the office tower’s revolving door, he caught the movement of Joss’s car as it pulled away from the curb.

He marveled that this drab vehicle could carry such singular and precious cargo: Riley’s date, Reese’s confidante, his own heart’s desire.

In this new dispensation, tonight didn’t seem so far away at all.


+++++++++


As he had before each of the three previous sessions, he used the elevator ride to the nineteenth floor to review what Riley would and would not say to the police department psychiatrist, Iris Campbell.

The outline was clear: Friends -- only Fusco and a few drinking buddies from the precinct. Captain -- Moreno seemed fair enough. Parents -- long dead, their troubles buried with them. Sex -- none to speak of. Shootings -- unhappy inevitabilities of a policeman’s lot.

On this point Riley and he agreed: he didn’t like shooting people, but he was good at it. If he could save somebody by winging a perp, he was going to do it. If he had to kill someone to save another’s life, he was going to do that too. The violence and the trauma came with the badge no matter how much it hurt.

For a company shrink, Campbell was good, better than most of the incompetents he had seen in the past, far better than he had first thought. In their initial session, she had read his ploys with ease, seeing right through all the little gestures designed to establish familiarity. She seemed immune to his physical presence, not shifting in fear from his crowding or preening to create a sexual vibe between them.

Campbell seemed to know when he was lying, which turned out to be comforting, a real surprise to him.

Her skill at discerning many of his thoughts, and deciphering most of his moods eased the pressure he had felt going into that first mandatory session. Now in this fourth encounter, he sensed he could safely talk to her about things that were churning around in his mind without unmasking all of the secrets he had to guard to ensure the survival of Finch’s mission.

A paradox to be sure, but one he was glad to exploit.

As he rose through the skyscraper, he shed all the personas he usually crammed into his mental rucksack every day. He dropped Riley first because the policeman was the newest and easiest to lose. Then Rooney, Randall, Warren, Wiley, and all the other guises jostling around him like phantoms.

Last went Reese, an older identity he had grown comfortable with over a decade of use. Badge, black suit – these were external trappings of roles he could discard at least for this hour.

In treatment with Campbell, he would keep Riley’s eager humor, some of Warren’s sophistication, and Reese’s wary distrust too. But for the most part he could be his true self with her, even if she didn’t actually realize it.

Although he was alone in the elevator car, he was mindful of the staring eye of the camera over the key panel. Whether Samaritan or the machine, something was always watching, so he kept his left hand relaxed on his coat button and his right in his pocket, gripping the cell phone there.

The erotic heat from his brush with Joss still pulsed through his body, a current of passion to comfort him through the session. But these warm sentiments were private and he intended to keep them that way. This relationship with Joss -- whether covert or open – was a cherished thing whose boundaries he would defend against all challenges. And it didn’t figure into his job difficulties, he was sure of that. Joss was irrelevant to his department eval and he didn’t plan on sharing anything about her with Campbell.

Although he was running late, he stopped in the men’s room between the elevator bay and the doctor’s suite, taking several minutes to compose himself in this hushed masculine retreat of deep blue tiles and stainless steel surfaces. There he washed his hands and splashed water on his face; he wanted to cool off before presenting himself to Campbell’s scrutiny.

Glimpsing his face in the mirror, he thought he looked rested, without the harried hyper-alertness that often pinched his expression. As he patted his cheeks with paper towels, he noted that the lines around his mouth were relaxed and even the charcoal at the inner corners of his eyes seemed brighter than in past days.

Refusing to date an unkempt man, Joss had insisted Riley shave the stubble and the shiny cheeks thus exposed knocked a few years off his age, he felt.

He didn’t know if this was how happy looked -- superstition made him dodge the label just as he avoided speaking the word love -- but he thought he looked well.

Slipping into a stall, he removed the battery from the phone and pried the device from his ear. He didn’t want anyone listening in on these sessions.

Before each weekly meeting he went through these little acts of personal security. Dismantling the surveillance was a way of breaking from his everyday world, unlatching those ties for an hour of unfettered reflection.
As he performed the task, he thought of the little quips his friends had launched when Moreno first confined him to desk duty, assigned a narc from Internal Affairs to tail him, and required him to get a formal psych evaluation.

Fusco had ragged on him about the rat’s nest the shrink would surely find tangled inside his head. Shaw had mocked him with a warning not to cry in the counselor’s office. And Finch had coolly hoped that the treatment would bring him some much needed balance.

Each dart was different, stinging him in a distinct way. Sure, maybe these jabs said more about his friends’ issues than about his own. He knew their comments were careless and casual, not designed to wound. But all the same, these quips nettled and he felt raw whenever he thought about them.

So removing the ear piece and disabling the cell was a comforting ritual, soothing his nerves and settling his mind before he joined Iris Campbell.

When Reese finally entered the psychiatrist’s office, she was already in place behind her desk, a red mug clasped in her right hand as she wrote on a note pad with her left. Like him she was a southpaw, adapting awkwardly to the world’s constant petty challenges every day.

Against a backdrop of rain-streaked windows and columns of clouds framing her head and shoulders, Campbell seemed powerful, like she had somehow conquered this space of storm and light.

She looked up at him with a grin that seemed open and inviting; she appeared genuinely happy to see him, although Reese was sure she had perfected that technique through years of training. He liked the soft shade of pink lipstick she used; not sexy, it seemed feminine and polished.

He had noted with some surprise that she did not keep a computer or laptop on her desk only a blotter covered with several file sleeves and a stack of pads of white paper. She kept a bouquet of ballpoints in a blue-and-white Penn State tumbler; this Nittany Lion was a working class kid like him.

He wondered again if she transferred her notes about him to a hidden data base once the session was over. The silver-framed photo of her Burmese cat was gone now, he supposed she hid it after his clumsy early efforts at forced familiarity. He figured she returned the picture to its place on her desk after each session with him.
He had no doubt that Iris Campbell was a master manipulator, as skillful as he was in other more deadly contexts.

She might look fragile with her porcelain skin, pointy chin, and wispy rose-gold hair. But he thought she had a mind of steel and nerves to match. He didn’t fear her skills now; if she could read him, it was because he let her in, not because she had duped him or beaten it out of him.

He liked her style and felt a swell of confidence as he sank into the deep arm chair in front of her desk. Irrational perhaps, but he felt she was on his side, looking out for his interests, not just those of Internal Affairs or his ambitious captain. She sat opposite him in an identical chair, smoothing the skirt of her narrow navy dress until it reached her knees.

No greeting apart from the grin, no softening chit chat, just business, respecting his time and hers, which he appreciated.

“Detective Riley, looking over your service record, I see that you’ve been wounded several times on duty.”
She opened a manila folder on her lap, but then crossed her legs to make it slant away from him so that he couldn’t see the papers she was studying.

He didn’t know what the machine had put into this file on Riley, so he hesitated to volunteer too much detail at the outset. He assumed Campbell was used to his clipped speech by now. His pattern was to keep to short answers at the beginning of each session, expanding as they went along, so he would stick with that for now.

“Yes, more than once. Never seriously.”

She was going to pursue something, he could see it in the way her eyes sharpened as she formed her next comment.

“The most recent time was eleven months ago. Can you tell me about that?”

Still unsure of how much she knew, he hedged his answer, despite her raised eyebrow.

“It’s all right there in the file. I don’t really like going over it again.”

He shifted in the chair, his discomfort real. So he released a breath when she took up the story for him.

“Yes, I have the official account: you and Detective Joss Carter were ambushed. She fired on the assailant who escaped capture. Both of you were injured. Carter recovered in Saint Seraphia Martyr Hospital. But the file is unclear on where you were treated.”

Relief flooded through him. The machine had gone with an approximation of the truth, so he could too.

“My injuries were pretty superficial. I got some quick medical attention and then recovered at home.”

“Is that your usual pattern, John? Go to ground, lick your wounds, and get back to the job as soon as you can?”

“I guess so… why? Is that a bad thing?”

He liked it when he got to ask the questions, steer the conversation a little.

“If you rush it, maybe. Do you think you came back to work too soon, John?”

“No, I’m fine.”

He knew that brusque answer was just begging to be shot down.

“No lingering physical symptoms?”

“Like I said, I’m fine. I got cleared and everything.”

He wondered if the machine had thought to include a medical clearance report but he decided to risk the assertion anyway.

“After the shooting last fall, your record of multiple uses of your weapon suggests that may not be completely accurate.”

“So you keep telling me, Doc. I know I’ve fired my weapon more times in one year than most cops do in a career. But what can I say, I got unlucky.”

“So you don’t think you deserve to rest, take a break, even just a little?”

He leaned back into the cushion, spreading his legs in opposition to her dainty pose.

“I’m not going to take a break, not sideline myself voluntarily, if that’s what you mean.”

“Not break, John, but just bend a bit? Your injuries weren’t trivial, from what I can see here.”

“Bending is worse than breaking, in my experience.”

“How so?”

“If you break, then that’s something definite. Clear. People who count on you for protection know you’re out of commission and they can adjust. Put up new defenses until you rejoin the battle.”

He paused to look her dead in the eye. He wanted Campbell to get this next part.

“But if you just bend, fold under pressure, then they have no way of figuring how long before you crack completely. Will you break today? Or tomorrow? Or next month? The danger is doubled for them because it’s unpredictable. People who need you don’t know if they can trust you to stay upright. Or if you’re going to collapse all of a sudden, without warning.”

Breathing heavily at the end of that speech, he felt he had sprinted against a strong head wind. So her next question fit into his mind’s landscape seamlessly.

“Like an oak tree going down in a violent squall?”

She looked out the window then, directing his attention to the punishing rain thrashing the glass.

“Yes, like that, I guess.”

“And you have people who count on you, John?”

“Yes, some. Colleagues on the job. Partners. Innocents who can’t protect themselves.”

“And can you get there in time to help them all?”

“Not all, but as many as I can. Until I can’t anymore.”

If she was going to hint again that he had a death wish, like she did in their first session, he was ready with a rejoinder this time. He wasn’t suicidal, not any more. Not since the transit cop brought him to Joss. Not since he found his purpose, his real job.

If Campbell wanted to hear about some long ago symptoms, he could dig up a few for her to chew on.

He would give her a story or two from his days before Joss: Leaning over the railing of a bridge peering into the choppy water racing below. Running his finger around the blunt nose of a revolver, probing the barrel for an answer in its oily silence.

Those images would be hair-raising enough to reassure Campbell that her intuition about his darker moods was not entirely unfounded. If pressed, he would tell her this part of his story, revealing how he’d changed, but leaving Joss’s name out of it.

He felt his heart tumbling in his chest, tossed in this storm of grim memories. He tried to school his expression to hide the emotions, but something flitting across his face must have tipped her off, because Campbell’s next question came at him like she was reading his mind.

“In your observation, how is Detective Carter doing these days?”

“After the shooting, you mean? She’s fine, I guess.”

“Just like you.”

“Yes.”

“Do you see her often?”

“She’s assigned to the Homicide Task Force, same as me, so she’s sort of hard to miss around the precinct.”

“And after hours?”

“Heh, your sources are pretty good, Doc.”

That drew a smile from Campbell, the second one of the session. She remained silent but nodded at him to continue.

“Yes, we’ve gone out a few times. Nothing serious.”

“Do I detect a ‘yet’ following that assessment, John?”

He knew Campbell was teasing him a bit, playing to see which way he would go as she delved further. She hadn’t breached his undeclared border yet, so he didn’t feel the need to warn her off.

And it felt good, real good, to speak Joss’s name out loud.

“Detective Carter is a tough nut to crack, but yeah, I’m keeping hope alive. You got any dating tips for me?”

He let Warren’s bravado creep into the question, along with a smarmy half-smile he hadn’t used since the interrogation at Rikers.

“I don’t know her, so I’m going to have to rely on your insights, John. Do you think she’s interested?”

“In me? Hard to read her… But she hasn’t said no yet.”

He knew the brag sounded punk, but he had to channel Riley’s frat brother persona to keep a few steps ahead of Campbell.

As if rising to that challenge, the shrink’s eyes turned a cooler shade of their native green and her voice seemed to take on a lower, more intimate, tone.

“Is getting shot together a binding experience, do you think? Can you build a solid relationship on a trauma like that?”

She was pushing hard now, but he tossed out the quip he had formed already, trying to dodge her probe.

“Well, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. But, yeah, bleeding out together does give you something to talk about when dinner conversation starts to lag.”

Though he thought her eyes sparked a little in amusement at that, Campbell wasn’t distracted or diverted at all.

“So, you share a lot with Detective Carter, do you?”

Like a scythe, this simple question split him open.

He wanted to give up this long fight against self-disclosure. He was exhausted by the effort of hiding, the battle to keep so much inside. This struggle to stay undetected -- from Campbell, from Samaritan, from the machine, from everybody he knew or cared about -- had worn him down until all that was holding him together was a frayed ribbon of nerves twitching unprotected in the wind.

It felt important that this woman understand him, not Riley or Warren or Reese, but him. That she see inside of him when he exhaled, that she know something true about Joss too.

“Same military background and training and instincts, same sense of purpose. She’s committed to saving people, same as me. She has a stronger sense of right and wrong than I’ll ever have. I trust her and I learn something from her every day I’m with her.”

He ducked his head, wanting to hide his eyes from Campbell’s searching gaze just this once. Riley couldn’t look like he was totally in love after only a few dates, could he?

“But then I’ve got a better sense of humor than Carter, so that sort of evens things out, doesn’t it, Doc?”

No smile, but she nodded her acceptance.

Campbell leaned back in her soft chair and he did the same. She was giving him space to drift a bit, time to compose himself while he lowered his lashes to capture the tears threatening to fall in front of her again.

It was Okay to cry in front of her. John Riley would do that. So would John Reese. He felt a hot tear steal down his cheek, but resisted brushing it away. So would he.

Then, without voicing the truce they had reached, Campbell steered the conversation to other topics. A spiraling string of questions led him through insights about his job, about violence and death, about friends, about the inevitability of all those enemies he got up every morning to battle.

He lost track of the passing minutes, his voice tumbling through the hushed room in a soft torrent of emotions. Riley’s words blended with Reese’s melancholic tone, but he was talking, telling true things about himself, things that mattered, events that changed him and people who kept him moored in this turbulent life.

So when a discreet bell chimed at last it seemed to spring on him from a great distance. He shook his head to whisk away the fog of confession.

“Have we gone over the hour, Doc?”

She smiled for the third time in the session, the movement of her lips indulgent like a mother’s and comforting. If she had been at all touched by their exchange he thought it showed in the chewed flakes of pink color left on her thin lips.

“You came in a little late, John, so I let us run over. I hope you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind.”

He was dismissed, he knew. So he put both hands on his knees to leverage his weight from the depths of the chair’s enveloping cushion.

But as he leaned forward, she stopped his departure with a brusque change of tone.

“I’m going to write up my final evaluation for the department when we’re done here. I wanted you to know that I see no reason you should not be returned to full duties immediately. And the IAB tail gets lifted tomorrow.”

“Thank you.”

He wanted to say more. To make his gratitude rich and comprehensive, to expand on what he hadn’t been able to say during these hours they had shared. But she shrugged, and he damped down the words sliding up from his throat.

“No, John, thank you. For your service. For your commitment.”

He stood still in front of her, head down, chin tucked, the toes of his shoes touching one another. This was more than he could accept. So he said nothing.

“But you know, since we won’t be having another session, there is just one important point I want to bring up.”

Campbell’s voice sounded sly, a new coloration to her tone that intrigued him. So he raised his eyes until they met hers.

“You didn’t fool me with that casual act, you know. Not one tiny bit. I think that you and Detective Carter have progressed a little farther along than just a few random dates.”

Her laughter, when she finally shared it, was fair and bright and his heart contracted to the thrill of it.

“Doesn’t matter to the eval, of course, and I won’t write Carter into my report. But I just wanted you to know you were not getting away with even a little lie with me.”

She held her stare for a moment before her eyes narrowed in mirth.

“I see all, John. Exactly everything.”

He smiled, but without his teeth showing, to cover the gulp that clogged his speech. Then, as she turned her face up to him, he leaned forward into her personal space. He lowered his face to hers and whispered:

“Do you mind? Now that we’re off the clock?”

He kissed her cheek without waiting for permission, the dry coolness there surprising him, soothing him.

“Don’t mind at all, Detective.”

As she walked him to the door, a gentle hand pressed against his back. And when she closed it after him he thought the sound less a final thump than a sighing murmur.

On the ride down, Riley, Warren, Reese, and all the other ghostly personas crowding the elevator car took up their places inside him once more, but their burden seemed just a bit lighter than before.

In this new dispensation, tonight -- and Joss -- didn’t seem far away at all.

Fic: Brazen
blacktop50
Title: Brazen
Author: blacktop
Characters: John Reese, Joss Carter, OC
Rating: Strong R
Warnings: Frothy commerce, sex
Word count: 3,200
Summary: Reese shops with Carter and a good time is had by all




Reese shot through the door of the glass-fronted boutique, his finger tightening around the trigger of the gun nestled in the kangaroo pocket of his sweatshirt.

A bell chimed merrily as he plunged into the shop; he noted that the push-button combination lock which should have barred him was not working.

His eyes swept the sun-drenched room: rosy walls glazed like the layers of a birthday cake stretched into the distance and long rows of women’s dresses dangled from racks hanging by pink chains from the ceiling.

Three giant pin-cushions upholstered in green-and-white checks sprawled down the middle of the space. He supposed these ottomans were seating for shoppers or more likely for their bored male escorts.

At the far end of the room, a stylized antelope leaped across an arched doorway, its elongated limbs and curved neck suggesting flight captured for eternity in bronze.

Despite the exotic promise of its name, The Brazen Antelope seemed rather conventional in its decor and classic in the array of floral patterns and feminine silhouettes on its hangers. At first glance, nothing in this shop seemed like the pant suits and sweaters that Joss usually wore.

Under the smell of commercial rug cleaner, he registered the prickly scent of fresh starch and the spice of jasmine flowers.

He wasn’t sure if the urgent message which had demanded his presence was from Joss, but the alluring promise of her perfume made his blood surge in a familiar erotic rush. The press of new cases had kept them apart for five days and so his feelings were divided now: he hoped she wasn’t in danger here, but he longed to see her again.

To silence the clatter of the gun as it knocked against his cell phone, Reese clasped both devices together inside his pocket. The high alarm which had fired his senses and propelled him into the shop dwindled as he took in the silent scene.

He could feel his racing heart slow to a trot as two minutes passed without signs of a threat or even a victim in need of rescuing. If Joss wasn’t threatened, he could re-calibrate his frantic conscience for the moment.

Sunday morning, especially a steamy one in mid-June, was not a good time for business at The Brazen Antelope, it seemed.

The place was empty of customers and he wondered again just why he had been ordered here with such a burning urgency.

There was only one woman in the shop and her features sparked with hope when she caught sight of him. The wide grin and pink splotches on her cheeks and throat as she closed the distance between them suggested she must be a clerk in dire need of a commission.

The only danger she appeared to be in was of falling off her four-inch heels as she navigated the spongy pink carpet.

“Mr. Redd? Welcome to The Brazen Antelope! So nice to meet you at last!”

The hand she laid over his forearm felt clammy even through the thickness of his sweatshirt. He noted the yellow stains on her fingers which meant she was a heavy smoker. Reese knew that phony familiarity was a stock technique of all sales girls, but this one seemed particularly sincere in her friendliness.

“We were expecting you. I’m Annalise.”

Reese hoped that by puffing out his chest a bit, sucking in his stomach, and straightening to his full height he could deflect any disappointment Annalise might feel as she looked over his baggy outfit of gray cotton, sagging elastic, and frayed drawstrings. The triangle of sweat at the ribbed collar of his dingy pullover continued to darken as he stood in front of her. His toes felt itchy inside the black leather high-tops.

Twenty-five minutes earlier, he had broken off a sparring match at Neely’s Gym to rush to the scene of what he had assumed was an imminent attack.

The text message on the cell phone screen had been strident, if ambiguous: first the term “Intersection,” then an address followed by stark words: “Trouble. Come at once.”

He looked around the boutique again then back to his smiling hostess.

Maybe late twenties, Annalise was too slender to be sexy, he thought, but her blonde hair was nicely curled around her jawline and the cut of the bangs showed off her arched nose and hooded green eyes. She was dressed in what seemed to be the style of the shop, flowered fabric draped from pleats at the shoulder and captured by a skinny belt. With the low neckline, bright colors, and dancing hem, the dress was feminine, soft, and appealing, he found.

Since she seemed to know him, Reese didn’t feel the need to do more than grin and wait for her to elaborate so that he could fit himself into the story she already had in her head.

“We don’t normally open our shop on Sunday mornings, but when we got your email message, my boss told me to make an exception. It is lovely of you to offer such a generous birthday gift to your wife, Mr. Redd!”

He tried to keep his eyebrows from shooting up and he was glad that his hands were inside of the kangaroo pouch so that Annalise couldn’t see them clutch the gun in a spasm of surprise.

“Yes …well, she’s worth every penny. That’s for sure.”

His first words were accompanied by a hearty laugh. He hoped they carried the right tone of command and indulgence that the situation seemed to call for.

Annalise bubbled right along.

“I hope we can find everything she needs to outfit her for the cruise you’ve got planned, Mr. Redd. I think the wine provinces of France sound just so romantic!”

Annalise sighed and looked off through the boutique’s plate glass window, perhaps envisioning moonlit nights gliding past citadels overlooking the Gironde or Dordogne rivers.

Reese hated to interrupt her Gallic reverie, but he needed to get to the bottom of the mystery. His heart leaped to the conclusion that the concealed woman must be Joss and his cock twitched in happy agreement with the idea.

“Has she, I mean, my wife, Mrs. Redd, arrived yet?”

He thought sounding impatient and vaguely Texan would clear the shop clerk’s head, so he added, “We need to finish packing before three. Even private planes won’t wait forever, you know.”

“Oh, a private plane! I think you called it ‘Intersection’ in your emails, didn’t you? How perfectly elegant! Yes, she’s already back in the fitting room.”

The weird congruence of the text and email messages puzzled him for a moment, but he forgot them in the cheery blast of Annalise’s chirping:

“We picked out at least two dozen dresses and she’s been trying them on for a while. You can go back and see her if you want. Or you can just wait out here. Would you like some coffee, Mr. Redd?”

He did want the coffee, but he shook off the offer and looked down the room.

“Thank you, but no, darlin’. I figure I’ll just head back and see if I can hurry her along. Mrs. Redd has a bad habit of dawdling.”

The casual condescension of the phrases seemed to fit the persona although it made him cringe to keep up the pose.

“Twelve years together and I still can’t seem to break her of it. She looks mighty good when she gets done, of course, but the waitin’ is awful painful!”

Annalise winked as if sharing a sophisticated joke with him and pointed toward the heavy pink velvet curtains draped across the passage to the rear of the shop.

Above the doorway, the cavorting bronze antelope seemed to leap in anticipation, but Reese thought that impression was just a trick of his overheated mind.

“You go on back, then, Mr. Redd. I’ll just step outside for a minute for a quick smoke. The boss doesn’t want us smoking inside, you know. But if you need me, just call.”

xxxxxxxxx

Joss did look good.

The deep emerald shade of her bra and panties set her skin glowing in the candle-pink light of the dressing room. He liked the way the rough leather of her sandals contrasted with the satiny glamour of her underwear.

She didn’t need high heels to look sexy; in fact, he adored how her head rose no higher than his heart when she wore these flip-flops.

The sweet conspiring scent of jasmine he had noted when he first entered the shop was her, of course. It drifted around her now, warming the close atmosphere of the room with its faint but exciting promise.

Almost naked, she was between outfits, he guessed. On the left side of the mirrored chamber, several dresses in jewel tones of blue, plum, and orange were still on their hangers awaiting her inspection.
Other dresses had fallen to the floor in a flowery puddle around the pink velvet tufted bench that occupied the center of the space.

Reese didn’t trumpet his entrance before flinging aside the door to the fitting room. He hoped Joss had caught his loud drawl as he spoke with Annalise in the outer room and that she was willing to go along with the game for a few moments more.

“Mrs. Redd, how the heck are you?” He would drop the accent in a while, but not yet.

She arched her spine as she turned away from him to catch his eye in one of the full-length mirrors. Then he could see that she wasn’t wearing panties exactly because, despite the scrap of satin in front, the back didn’t cover her ass. In fact from the rear, it looked like she wasn’t wearing anything at all, which was delicious.

His mouth moistened at the dazzling vision and when she spoke at last, her jasmine melted into a bouquet of liquid flavors on his tongue:

“Mr. Redd, good of you to drop by!”

Butter and cinnamon and the gentle bite of ginger blended in his mouth so rapidly that he had to gulp twice to avoid drooling.

In a hurry, he leaned against the door, pressing back until he heard its lock click into place.

“What’s going on here, Joss?” Soft and low now that they were in private.

“You tell me, John.”

She drew out his simple name into three syllables in a way that set his cock galloping.

“I have no idea what’s going on.”

Then, without waiting for his response, she launched into an explanation and even though her tone was crisp, it didn’t break the mood of erotic license.

In fact, she was sexiest when she was tart.

“I was frying up some bacon for breakfast this morning and made the mistake of putting that damn ear piece in. I had just finished up the batch, but before I got a chance to crack the first egg, the voice came on telling me to get to this shop.”

Joss paused, her eyes growing filmy and unfocussed at the memory of the machine’s eerie command.

It was several weeks since the machine had first contacted her directly; its interactions with her now were frequent, Reese knew. Although he wasn’t aware of the content of every exchange, he understood from her reports that the machine sometimes interspersed questions among the expected tactical orders.

Joss seemed to take this new relationship in stride and she described the machine’s instructions this morning with a bemused air:

“It sounded really urgent, all cool and clipped like it does, droning on about ‘trouble’ and ‘intersection’ and what not.”

Then a sardonic warmth invaded her expression again. Her mouth curled up at the corners so that the little dip at the bow of her upper lip flattened until he thought his heart would burst.

“But when I get here that fool girl just starts falling all over me, calling me ‘Mrs. Redd,’ babbling like she was going to die if she didn’t give away her merchandise. I thought it was some undercover stunt you and Harold were pulling, so I went along with the game.”

In a few phrases, Reese explained how he came to The Brazen Antelope.

He didn’t want to waste this precious time talking about the “intersection” coincidence. But he thought she expected to hear something from him so he gave her the story of the text message.

By the end of it, Joss’s voice was heavy with sarcasm, but that was alright with him because her nipples were popping inside the green satin bra.

Shifting from foot to foot as she listened to him made the green satin triangle slide into her pretty cleft. The effect was so gorgeous it took his breath away.

“I see you dressed for the occasion, John.” She was teasing and he loved it.

She let her critical glance rake his body until he crossed his hands over his chest in a protective stance.

“Hey, I cleaned Hank Washington’s clock for three rounds this morning. I would have decked him except I got this text and had to quit.”

“Honey Hank? How’s he doing?”

She was grinning now, her brown eyes dancing and her lips pulling back to show off her perfect teeth.

“You don’t meet many good-looking guys with wicked left upper cuts like that. So did Hank ask about me?”

She sighed elaborately and he could see her teasing pink tongue darting behind her teeth, testing him in a familiar pattern.

His response was predictable, he knew, but he said it slowly so that she would feel the honest passion underlying the rote answer:

“If he had, I would have killed him, so it’s a good thing he kept his mouth shut for once.”

As she curved her throat to laugh, he watched the sounds bubble up from her chest, so damn sexy he thought he would melt into the carpet right there on the spot.

He closed his eyes briefly and when he opened them she was pressed against him, rubbing her breasts over his ribs like a cat that had decided mere purring wasn’t friendly enough.

She fingered the sweatshirt’s damp neckline, pulling it aside so she could stroke the flat of her tongue over his throat before dropping little kisses from his collarbone to his jaw. Then she pressed her nose against his chest and inhaled deeply.

“Mmmm, this is good. So real… So, I don’t know…just so you.”

And with that, they were done talking.

So he fitted his hands over the globes of her bare ass, squeezing and petting until she shimmied forward into him, as if trying to escape and get closer at the same time.

She could get him to full erection by just thrusting against his pelvis like this, but that wasn’t fast enough for her it seemed, so she snaked her hand past the frayed waistband of his sweatpants. She rubbed him for a stroke or three or four over the elastic of his jockstrap, which got tighter and tighter as she worked him.

While she grasped his cock, he slipped a hand under her jaw to raise her face towards him. She stared at him for a long moment, never letting up on the rhythmic squeezing that was driving him to the edge.

Then as he lowered his head to her, she closed her lids, the lashes flitting up and down just before the kiss was sealed. He drove his tongue into her mouth in time with her pumping, encouraging her to take him as she wanted. In the swirling delirium of the moment, he didn’t know which act was controlling, which was raw response.

With a whimper that echoed the regret clutching his own gut, she had to release him to make it over to the tufted bench.

There, she leaned back so that her breasts shifted inside the emerald green bra, stretching it wide, to expose the throbbing skin over her heart. At her silent suggestion, he tugged on the flimsy not-panties until he could roll them down past her ankles. Then she dropped her legs to either side of the bench, an invitation of pink over velvet pink.

In a moment, he was above her, a knee on the bench between her legs, his cock freed at last. She ran her fingers up and down his torso, pressing the ridges of muscles above his pubic bone. He pulled the sweatshirt over his head and flung it into the pool of dresses below the bench.

Then he plunged into her as if he had been burning for five years instead of five days, surging forward and back and forward again as she lifted her hips to meet his power.

She clasped his flanks, digging her nails into his waist as he moved, urging him on in a frenzy that threatened to unbalance them both.

He lowered his forehead to the concave at the base of her neck; he could feel her pulse there strumming in accord with his own heart.

In the moment of their shared crisis he raised his torso so that she could see him and he could see her, their bodies straining, their flesh joining. She took him one last time and then she broke in ecstasy around him, gasping his name as a short staccato curse which drove him to the sweetest surrender of all.

When they returned to consciousness, panting and laughing was all they could manage for several minutes.
He didn’t want to break the mood with anything profound, so he offered a giddy jibe:

“Mrs. Redd, you can buy all the dresses in this damn fitting room!”

“We better, Mr. Redd, or Annalise will have our hides for sure!”

xxxxxxxxx

But when they had straightened their clothing, arranged innocent expressions on their faces, and emerged together into the frothy pink light of the front of the shop, the clerk was gone.

After a few moments of blinking in the mid-day glare, they finally spotted Annalise tugging frantically at the front door.

From the outside.

She was barred from entry by the mysteriously resurrected push-button combination lock.

A portrait of frustration and anxiety as she peered into the store at her customers, drooping curls and sweat-soaked bangs framed her flushed face. As Reese strode toward the entrance, Annalise rattled the handle and punched frantically at the key pad to no avail.

The door just wouldn’t budge.

He let Annalise into the shop with a broad grin. Ignoring her distressed apologies, Reese thanked her with elaborate Texan formality for her attentive service.

He didn’t let a drop of irony pass his lips, figuring that the girl’s mortification was complete without his adding to her burden.

At the cash register, he stood behind Joss, speaking over her head to explain that Mrs. Redd had found everything to her satisfaction. In fact, the service at The Brazen Antelope was so good he planned to tell everyone in San Antonio about this wonderful New York City shopping experience.

Then he handed over a platinum corporate card whose astounding credit limit easily covered the cost of the towering armful of flowery dresses Joss piled on the counter. Reese hoped this extravagant gesture would soothe the frazzled shop girl.

With a flurry of head-shaking and sighs, Annalise wrapped the gowns in acres of pink tissue, then folded them in shopping bags decorated with the boutique’s signature green-and-white check.

As they left The Brazen Antelope, Mr. and Mrs. Redd promised to send Annalise an electronic postcard from a vineyard in the heart of Bordeaux.


Author's Note: In the story, Maternal Instinct, Finch follows cursors on a screen to track the movements of his assets Reese and Carter. When the two cursors rest together overnight at an intersection of the grid, Finch takes note of their changed relationship. As indicated in the present story, the machine noticed their "intersection" too.

Fic: Selfie In Blue, Part IX
blacktop50
As he handed her into the bus at midnight, Reese slipped an envelope into Badge’s coat pocket.

“This should last you until Tacoma.”

She patted its thickness and laughed.

“Far beyond that, I bet.”

She sidled down the aisle, her stomach bumping each seat back as she passed.

When she reached an empty row she looked up with a startled expression at Reese who had followed her.

“You going with me?”

He shook his head.

“I can’t, you know that.”

He pulled her close to his body, his hands tight around her back.

“Here’s what I want to say: you need to forget everything. New York, Otter, Elias, me, everything. Understand?”

He hugged her until she squeaked slightly.

“That’s the best gift you can give your baby, Danica. If you keep remembering you will throw away any chance for fun or meaning in your life…and in hers.

" ‘This is the last, best gift, the gift of forgetfulness.’ ”

Badge’s eyes lit up, their soft blue enchanting him all over again.

Wind in the Willows. I know that quote too. I love that chapter about Pan.”

She leaned back a little bit so that he had to bend over to hear her next words.

“That part is just so beautiful and sad too. I think this is how it goes:

“ ‘Lest the awful remembrance should remain and grow and overshadow mirth and pleasure. ‘ ”

He whispered the rest of the quotation with her:

“ ‘And the great haunting memory should spoil all the after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in order that they should be happy and light-hearted as before.’ ”

Reese felt the bus growing hot, clamping down on him like a serrated trap. Regret bludgeoned him and he choked on the next words.

“Yes, that’s it. Forget and you will be just fine.”

Badge kissed his cheek then and took her seat, releasing him to flee into the night.


+++++++++


Epilogue


Two days later, an hour after dawn, Fusco called Reese to a crime scene near the docks.

“Four-eyes said you’d want to see this. You know this mope or something? Harbor police pulled him outta the river this morning.”

Fusco unzipped the body bag and folded back one of its corners so that the head of the dead man was visible.

A wet pelt of black curls crowned a thin face whose faint mustache and wispy beard suggested this boy had not yet begun to shave. Black eyes, flat as buttons, stared at nothing. Reese started counting Otter’s water-spiked lashes but gave up; if he noted any more details he would never be able to forget.

The jaunty red scarf was knotted twice around the kid’s neck as if it could protect him from the freezing waters of the Hudson. Its cheery color mocked the blood crusted around two bullet wounds at his right temple.

Reese was silent so long that Fusco repeated the question.

“You know him?”

“Yes.”

After another long pause, Fusco pushed on, official exasperation giving way to friendly concern as he softened his voice.

“So who is he?”

Reese stood at attention.

He felt remorse at this boy’s death, of course. He had killed Otter as surely as if he had pulled the trigger himself.

But he didn’t regret the bargain he had struck with Elias. He had made a choice, traded Otter’s life for Badge’s. And her baby’s.

It seemed the right deal to him.

“His name is Bobby Ruiz. He is twenty years old.”


+++++++++


On an unusually warm night in late October, Larry the Worm interrupted Reese’s retreat through the lobby of the Taj Mahal to hand him a white business-size envelope.

“This came two weeks ago. I was all set to throw it out. But then I figured it had to be for you so I hung onto it.”

Reese looked at the envelope, stained with greasy fingerprints and coated with a fine dusting of grime.

The postmark over the flag stamp indicated it had been mailed from Oakland, California. It was addressed to

Mr. John Good
The Taj Mahal Hotel
23 Cooper Square
The Bowery
New York, NY

He handed Larry a twenty and hurried to his third floor room.
Inside the envelope was a single sheet of typing paper. Printed on it was a photo, tinted blue, of a solemn faced baby with a shock of indigo hair. A bow was tied in the forelock and her eyes were cobalt.

The baby was sitting on a lap; in this selfie, the only visible parts of her mother were blue jeans and the sleeve of a cable knit sweater.

Reese turned over the sheet. His hand was shaking with so much emotion that he had to press the page on his thigh to keep it still so that he could read the message.

The inscription was in Badge’s looping innocent scrawl: Jemma Hofer Ruiz, Born September 26, 2014, Seattle, Washington.

Below the birth announcement was a simple note from the baby: “Portly can’t wait to see Daddy Otter when he visits soon!!”

The baby’s nickname, taken from the Otter’s wandering child in Wind in the Willow, undammed tears he had held back for months.

When they were all spilled, he folded the page along its original creases and returned it to the envelope.

As he recovered his breath, he wiped away the smeared dirt over his name. Then he slipped the envelope under the mattress, pressing it into the box spring for safe keeping.

Though he had planned to spend the night in safety at the Taj, he changed his mind, raw desire for Joss overthrowing his paranoia and common sense.


+++++++++


Reese gathered Joss to him, his chest gliding over the sharp planes of her shoulders, her golden skin shimmering in the lamplight.

He drew his palm over the perfect fullness of her ass, feeling the trembling in her thighs that echoed in the quivering of her stomach where his fingers pressed and clasped in time with her moans.

He wanted to join in her now; sharp yearning for the pleasure ahead made his heart ache. He wanted this completion, this connection, with a fierceness that drove all thoughts from his mind.

His cock, heavy in expectation, pulsed with blood for her. Hope mixed with rigid passion in a cauldron of longing, as his stomach churned and clenched in anticipation. He wanted to be inside her, but he wanted to delay the sweet achievement too.

He pressed his mouth to her nape, kissing her spine, her hairline, sucking at the concave behind her ear. His hands found their familiar rhythm kneading her breasts as she sighed for him. She burrowed her face deeper into the pillow and angled her hips towards him.

This was a nostalgia of the body, without logic or theory. Pure, bittersweet sensation.

As he knelt behind her he listened for her voice, the mournful sounds that made up his name. In her mouth, his name seemed sad, like a lament in a secret language. But her saying his name -- this liquid eagerness for him -- was the surprise by which he measured each day now.

To brace himself for the first penetration, he gripped her waist, his thumbs meeting in the sweat-slick channel of her spine.

Love, undefined and unnamed, was all that remained when he had forgotten everything else; an appeal beyond memory.

He surged forward into her body, ready for this haunting return.

Fic: Selfie In Blue, Part VIII
blacktop50
Kehinde’s vicious beat-down was expected.

Reese was just grateful that the girl was blindfolded before the blows began so that she couldn’t see what was happening to him.

Though his hands were cuffed behind his back, Reese was also thankful that they had decided not to bind her as well.

The thug landed two solid knocks to the kidneys, one on each side for symmetry. Then he spun Reese around to deliver three more punches to the stomach.

Reese kept as quiet as he could. No need to alarm Badge or give Kehinde any satisfaction. Panting, he braced for a knee to the groin -- that seemed the brute’s style -- but none came.

“Boss said to bring you to him in one piece. He didn’t say anything about the condition of the piece.”

The man laughed with gusto, large upper and lower teeth showing equally.

Then he turned toward Badge and opened her coat. He patted her stomach gingerly, then with greater force. She angled her body away and whimpered.

Reese tried to lunge toward Kehinde, but two goons clamped onto his arms and held him back.

“Relax, stud. I’m not going to mess with your lady. I’m just doing my due diligence. The boss would slit my throat if she smuggled a gun or a cell phone into headquarters by pretending to be knocked up.”

One last pat on her belly and Kehinde nodded to his colleagues.

“But it’s for real. Congratulations, Pops!”

They wrapped a black blindfold over Reese’s eyes and shoved him toward Badge.


+++++++++

Surrounded by water, Reese thought they were on a barge of some kind.

The vessel’s movement was a gentle rocking rather than the shooting propulsion of a motor boat. He knew they were on a river because he could hear the sounds of street traffic nearby, a rumbling tide contracting and expanding in sonorous fluctuations around them.

Badge was breathing easily beside him, her knee pressed against his, her shoulder bumping his chest in time to the jostling of the barge.

Without sight, the other senses expanded their carnal empire.

He inhaled the scent of her skin: fresh leafy notes with warm amber underneath. He wondered again why she was calm in this unprecedented situation. But her presence had a soothing effect on him and he hesitated to question her and upset the eerie magic of the moment.

Water lapped at the sides of the barge wafting briny odors over them. He caught the tang of fish and barnacles, the mildew of old rope, their moldy smell undercut with something of rust and decay.

Overhead, he could hear seagulls squawking as they circled, their cries farther away or closer as the chilly air currents lifted them. The drone of the barge’s sluggish motor was interrupted once by the sharp toot-toot from a passing boat.

The rough wake of that vessel sent tremors through their own and, with his hands still cuffed behind him, he struggled to regain his balance on the deck bench. Reese wondered if they would ever reach Elias’s lair.

He wasn’t sure how much time passed; he guessed it was still late afternoon. With the sky overcast, the sun provided neither warmth nor clues about the direction of this voyage.

Their captors were silent, but not far away, he was certain.

Finally he had to ask her again:

“You’re not afraid, are you?”

“No, I’m not.” Badge sounded small, but sure as her voice murmured through him.

“Why? Why are you so positive?”

“Well, I’m bringing him back his money. So he has no reason to kill me now, has he?”

Reese knew his next warning would be unwelcome, but he had to deliver it.

“Money isn’t the only thing that motivates him.”

But she took it the other way around, finding some kind of solace in the idea that Elias was prompted by urges beyond the purely crass.

“Then that’s lucky for me, I guess.”

Was she chuckling?

He knew it should have been odd, but her laughter sounded so right to him somehow. As if they were on a jaunt, larking down the river on a lazy outing with a picnic lunch as their final destination.

So the quotation just bubbled up in his mind and he said it out loud:

“ ‘Simply messing about in boats.’ ”

“You like Wind in the Willows too?” She sounded surprised and impressed.

“Memorized lots of it once.”

“In school?”

“Fourth grade. I was a slow reader. Acted up a lot. Mrs. Oppenheim, my homeroom teacher, asked me one day what I wanted.”

“What you wanted?”

“Yes. She was the first adult to ask me what I wanted. Maybe the last, too.”

That burst out of somewhere deep, but he couldn’t push it back down now. The admissions kept on welling up, a tender geyser of feelings long suppressed. So he obeyed these urges and kept on speaking into the intimacy of the darkness.

“Everyone tells me what I want – what I should do, what I should think. What I need is a new attitude. Or a job. Or a purpose.”

“And what did you tell Mrs. Oppenheim?”

“I said I wanted to read like the other kids. Faster.”

Badge’s long fingers squeezed his knee.

“What did she say?”

“She said reading wasn’t a race. It was a dance. She gave me a copy of Wind in the Willows and said I should dance with it as long as I wanted. So I sat in the back of her classroom every morning and read that book. Page after page, week after week. All year.”

“No tests or nothing?”

“No tests. But each Friday Mrs. O would ask me about what I had read.”

“So you memorized the whole book?”

“Not all. But parts I liked. Or parts I thought she would like.”

Badge reached around him to touch his manacled hands.

“She was a good teacher. You were lucky, John.”

“Yes, she was. And I was.”

Badge seemed to change the subject then, but maybe not.

“His name isn’t really Otter, you know. It’s Bobby Ruiz. I call him Otter when we’re with the other Animals. But when we’re alone, just by ourselves, I call him Bobby. Sometimes Otter, but other times just Bobby. I just wanted you to know that.”

“Thank you.”


+++++++++


Elias had decorated his den like a reception room or parlor.

In the middle of the space stretched a long table of mahogany or cherry wood. Under it was a dark Oriental rug with an intricate border pattern in blood reds, blues, and cream. The carpet was so big the chairs around the table could be pushed back and their feet would remain within the rug’s boundaries.

Elias sat at one end of the table in a heavily carved throne, the sparkling light of a crystal chandelier shining on his bald head. His lieutenants and assorted muscle were lined up along the walls of the room, pressed deep into shadows there. Over their shoulders, oil portraits in ornate gold frames peeked out into the gloomy room.

In the hushed ranks, Reese spotted Kehinde near the head of the table. Next to him was a man with identical features and build. His twin, Taiwo, of course.

Reese hoped that Elias’s informal dress – dark slacks, open neck gray shirt, no tie – would not disappoint the star-struck Badge too much.

As they walked between the long parallel lines of silent men, Reese told her to stay quiet; he would do the negotiating with Elias. She nodded agreement with the plan, but as she was beside him, he couldn’t catch her eye to see if she understood.

Elias was in his usual affable mood.

“John, a pleasure to see you, as always. How many weeks has it been since we last spoke?”

Reese remembered their encounter at Joss’s hospital bedside and he knew Elias did as well.

“And how is our Jocelyn these days?”

“Fine.” Reese and Badge answered in unison, causing Elias to broaden his smile.


“Ah, you know the good detective, Ms. Hofer?”

“Joss is a cop?”

“Oh yes, and quite an excellent one too!”

Elias seemed positively merry at the exchange.

“I always enjoy her scintillating company, so I imagine you did as well.”

Elias tilted his head toward the two chairs to his immediate right.

“Please give Joss my fond regards when you see her next, John.”

He resented Elias’s attempt to claim her, even in this joking way. He wanted to smash the slimy smile from the gangster’s face. But he refrained. The stakes were higher than this momentary challenge to his ego.

He would settle up with the snake another day.

As they moved to sit down, Reese placed his hand on the collar of Badge’s coat. She paused to let him remove it, shrugging and twisting to pull her arms from the sleeves.

By the time he had folded the coat and dropped it on the back of a third chair, Reese was sure that Elias had seen her distended stomach poking through the flimsy tissue of her white pullover.

The mob leader raised his eyebrows at this new development.

“When is your child due, Ms. Hofer?”

Badge looked at Reese for permission to answer. He gave her the go ahead with a nod.

“Maybe September.”

Seated now, Reese hoisted the backpack onto the table and pushed it toward Elias with enough force that it almost toppled over the edge.

“Here’s what you want, Elias. It’s all there. Count it, if you wish.”

Reese was not interested in bantering because such small talk falsely implied that all issues between them were resolved.

The other man slowly unzipped the bag and pulled out the yellow Tortoni’s coffee cup, his brow furrowing.

He set the cup to one side and piled the blocks of cash into a little square fort in front of him.

“Ms. Hofer, you may wonder why I am so concerned about what we all would agree is a paltry sum of money.”

Elias ruffled the edge of one stack with his thumb, lips thinning at the sound it made in the dank air of the den.


“In an operation that moves millions every transaction, why would I even note or care about the twelve thousand dollars you skimmed in your little charitable escapade?”

Elias leaned back in his chair, pausing to peer into Badge’s face.

“The reason is as plain as a nursery rhyme: If I let you get away with this theft, then others – less generous than you – will imagine they can get away with it too.”

He removed his glasses, then adjusted them higher on his nose, causing Reese to wonder if his eyesight was deteriorating.

Both men started when Badge spoke up at that point.

“But I can repay the money, Mr. Elias. Every penny of it.”

“I am sure you would repay the debt. Your honesty is hit or miss, but your sincerity is profound. I have no doubt about that whatsoever.”

Elias looked around the room at his assembled henchmen. Reese recognized that with an audience present, the theatrical impulses of the man were impossible to stifle. So he sat back in his chair, ready for the display to start.

“If you will permit me, Ms. Hofer, I can explain the complexities of my operation in a few unvarnished phrases that even you will understand.

“This operation derives its strength from a simple principle: although the scope is international each of the individual cells operates independently and in ignorance of one another.”

Elias sighed and steepled his stubby fingers together in front of his chest.

“I suppose I sound like an old-fashioned Bond villain gloating about some dastardly plan.”

His head oscillated from side to side as he watched Badge and Reese.

“But the fact is I have harnessed the ingenuity of hackers around the world. At my command, they have infiltrated the systems of credit-card processing companies in India and in Nebraska. They have breached banks in the United Arab Emirates and Singapore and Tokyo.”

He spread his hands in a wide arc as he concluded with a flourish.

“I have tapped the dynamics of the Internet and the limitless possibilities of cyberspace to create an elegant network that is bold, fast and so new its potential has only barely been mined.

“John, this is the big picture you and I have spoken about.”

Blinking rapidly, Elias shook his head as if returning to earth. He fixed his serpent gaze on Badge once again.

“Ms. Hofer, as I hope you can see, my operation is a complex one. But I maintain its machinery with a single all-important lubricant: confidence.

“I have to have confidence in those who work for me –“ Here he paused and looked directly at the men lined against the wall to his left.

“ – At all levels down to the lowliest cashing crew. And conversely, every part of the operation, even the most humble, must have confidence in my word. “

Elias raised his voice, which until this point had been barely above a whisper.

“And they must have confidence in my ability to exterminate anyone who crosses me.”

The warning wasn’t really shouted, but the walls seemed to reverberate with its power even so.

“That is the confidence your little pilfering threatens to undermine, Ms. Hofer. So a lesson must be taught. An example made for all to witness.”

Reese felt Badge quiver next to him, her hands trembling until she pulled them from the table and clasped them in her lap.

The negotiation -- for that was exactly what this was -- now turned to him.

“She’s too small, Elias, and you know it.”

Reese spoke softly to emphasize the intimacy of the exchange.

“You hurt her, you diminish yourself. You prove just how small you are. If this operation is as big as you say it is, then you don’t want anyone to get the idea that you are just another petty racketeer, do you?”

To signal he was listening, Elias cocked his head to one side.

Reese shifted his eyes toward the yellow coffee cup on the table between them. The mob boss followed his intense stare and flexed the muscles of his jaw so that the skin shivered across his face.

Elias picked up the cup, inspecting it closely, and then reached below the table. From his pants pocket he pulled out a simple switchblade, the kind a kid just starting out would carry to give himself a little courage.

Reese continued his argument now that his opponent’s attention was focused where he wanted it to be.

“Let her go. She means nothing to you, Elias. Killing a girl like this signals your weakness, not your strength.”

Elias fingered the knife’s button release and the blade sprang like a sinister tongue in his hand.

“John, you make a good point. My generosity can reach even farther than the bloody grasp of punishment.”

He turned the cup on its side, carefully sawing around the bottom, while making sure not to nick the high polish of the table’s surface. When the circle was complete, Elias removed the disk and set it down flat.

Reese plunged on, knowing his message had been received.

“I’ll guarantee Badge leaves the city tonight. And she stays gone. You have my word.”

Elias nodded once.

And then with a swift thrust, he sliced the cup down its seam from top to bottom. He pressed the stiff coated paper on the table, smoothing it down until the convex surface had been flattened completely.


“I will accept your pledge, John. And give you my own: no harm will come to Ms. Hofer during the next twelve hours. But if she is found in the city after that time is expired she will be eliminated.”

Running his hand over the script that spelled out Tortoni’s Café, Elias let his index finger pause over the black lettering of the address.

Reese concluded their bargain.

“Do what you have to do, Elias. But leave the girl alone.”

He couldn’t look her in the face, maybe he never would again.

But from the corner of his eye, Reese caught a smile playing across Badge’s wide innocent mouth. He knew she didn’t understand the deadly deal that had just been made to save her life.

Fic: Selfie In Blue, Part VII
blacktop50
When Reese awoke, bleak daylight was creeping around the legs of the trousers hung at his window.

Instinctively he reached across the flat bed spread.

“Joss.”

He wanted her there; she should have been there. She was dead. Again.

“She’s gone.”

Badge was sitting on the chair, finishing off the shrimp fried rice, her long legs propped on the bed, toes wriggling in blue and gray argyle socks.

“She said to tell you she had to get going. Something about work and blah, blah, blah, you know. But she’ll be in touch later in the morning.”

He scrubbed his hands across his face to press the sleep from protesting eyes.

“And she said you should call somebody named Harold because he was trying to reach you.”

When he didn’t say anything, Badge tossed him the cell.

“You know, urgent like.”

He didn’t want to speak with Finch in front of the girl, but with her staring at him there didn’t seem to be any way to avoid it.

After washing his face, Reese made the call as he paced the narrow gap between the bed and the sink.

Finch was brusque, fueled by caffeine and carbohydrates, sputtering with new information.

“Mr. Reese, I was contacted early this morning in regard to Ms. Hofer. The issue has been joined and the matter is coming to a head in a very few hours I suspect.”

“O.K. Finch, let’s have it.”

“A mutual friend of ours has asked about Ms. Hofer’s welfare.”

“Mutual friend?”

“Yes. Carl Elias.”

Finch whispered when he spoke this name, as if saying the words in full-voice would somehow cast a spell summoning the man himself.

Reese didn’t need to be told the implications of the mob boss’s interest in their case.

“So he’s the brains behind this heist, is he? Makes sense.”

“Yes, I believe so.”

Finch sounded almost elated with this news, eager to elaborate on the scheme he saw unfolding.

“Elias has the manpower, weaponry, imagination, and avarice to make this operation plausible. What I did not realize was that he also has the international reach and computing power to bring his ingenious idea to fruition.”

Reese wasn’t interested in sky-high speculation at the moment.

But Finch was on a roll, his words flowing down in a torrent barely dammed by the need to take a new breath.

“If what I believe is true, then Elias has created a far-reaching operation, able to infiltrate the computer systems of credit card processing companies and banks on every continent.

“This is cybercrime on a vast scale, Mr. Reese. Elias has succeeded in manipulating the entire global financial system.”

Reese figured there was nothing he could do about Elias hacking the international banking system.

If Elias could run a Rube-Goldberg operation like this, hats off to him. It was up to other people, the Finches of the world, to come up with a way of stopping the mob boss and his drive for mastery of the universe.

The only thing Reese could control was what happened in his little corner of that universe. And at the moment, the girl Badge was at the center of it.

“So what does Elias want with Badge?”

Finch’s voice rose, sending a cold thrill racing across Reese’s shoulder blades with his next words.

“He wants to meet her, Mr. Reese!”

He looked over at the girl slouched in the chair, her hands clasped across her round belly.

“Well, that’s not happening, Finch. Not on my watch.”

She studied him with placid curiosity, her blue eyes tracking his movements across the room, radiating trust and even a weird sort of happiness.

As if she delighted to hear him speaking a language she only vaguely understood. As if it wasn’t her very life he was discussing.

He shook his head, hoping the gesture would wipe any frown from his brow.

Finch continued, conveying his convictions in a firmer voice now.

“I’m afraid I don’t see how we have any choice in the matter. Elias says he wants to see her today. He wants her to bring the money. And he wants you to accompany her...”

“I’m not going along with any scheme like…”

“And he says he will order her assassination tomorrow if we don’t comply by this evening.”

It was settled then. Reese bristled at being trapped like this. But he agreed with Finch: the only way out was forward. Straight into Elias’s lair.

In a few more sentences the men sketched out plans for the rest of the day: breakfast and possibly lunch, a change of clothes for the girl, waiting for Elias to designate a meeting point.

Reese had one last request.

“Don’t tell Carter about this. None of it. She’ll only try to interfere and get herself and us in more hot water.”

Finch made his voice sound small.

“Well, I don’t exactly see how I can lie to her, Mr. Reese.”

“Why not? You lied before, you can lie now.”

He put heat into these words, the warmth of his plea easing the dread gripping his throat.

“If she asks, make up a story. Give her another number. Send her on a wild goose chase in some NYPD files. Anything. Just keep her out of this.

“For me, Harold. Please.”


+++++++++

The rest of the day unrolled as planned.

Reese took Badge back to Tortoni’s Café where she said she wanted to shower and change clothes.

As he had feared, she was in fact eager to meet with the mastermind behind the money scheme.

Badge wanted to see Carl Elias face to face. She wanted to hand over the cash she had taken, make apologies for her missteps, and explain her charitable impulses.

She was sure Elias would understand.

From her bubbling voice and dancing eyes, Reese also could see she was moonstruck with what she imagined was the glamour of the meeting.

Badge knew it was rare that a foot soldier got an audience with the head of such a vast organization.

She told Reese she was excited for the opportunity. She said it was like going to meet a movie star or the president of the United States or Derek Jeter. If she was scared, she didn’t show it, announcing her desire to look her best for the appointment.

As she disappeared upstairs to the apartment she shared with her boyfriend above Tortoni’s, Badge thrust her backpack at Reese, declaring it was too heavy to lug up the steps.

Reese took a seat in the café to wait, placing the lumpy satchel between his feet under the little table.

Joss called for the second time that day and he updated her in vague terms, throwing her off the trail, he hoped.

He ordered a tall coffee and sipped it as slowly as he could, but by the time he had finished, the girl still hadn’t returned.

Taking pity on him, Mrs. Tortoni, the old crone behind the cash register, gave him a slice of olive oil cake with a serving of fresh fruit on the side.

The cake was light but earthy, a citrus icing sprinkled with shreds of lemon zest decorating the top. Reese felt decadent, even dishonest, savoring this moist dessert while he waited to carry an innocent girl to a possible appointment with death.

He took the empty coffee cup and studied its yellow exterior, which matched the warm golden color of the walls of the cafe.

On one side of the cup bold black cursive letters spelled out the name Tortoni’s with scrolls embellishing the Ts and the final S. Under the name was the address of the café and the phrase “Buon Appetito!” below it.

The idea prickled in his mind as he ran his fingers around the rim of the coffee cup.

With a napkin, he slowly wiped out the inside of the cup, pressing the paper into the crevice circling the bottom to absorb the last drops of liquid. When it was clean and dry, he placed the cup inside the backpack, on top of the wads of twenty dollar bills. He was careful to draw the zipper so that the cup was not crushed, but nestled against the stolen money.

This was the way out, Reese was sure of it.

If everything fell into place, if every signal was received, if every hint was heard, he could save Badge and her baby.

At the high cost of betrayal, but a rescue all the same.

Fic: Selfie In Blue, Part VI
blacktop50
“This your idea of a safe house, John?”

Joss’s voice shot through the room as he stepped back to let them enter.

“I didn’t say that, exactly.”

“Does Harold know about this place?”

“No.”

He looked around, seeing the cramped space through her critical eyes.
A sway-backed bed dominated the cubicle, draped in a powder blue fringed coverlet he hoped was clean. He knew the hotel changed the sheets every other week so he was more confident about them.

A six foot long rope stretched over the window from which he hung his white shirts and black trousers as a curtain of sorts. He used the room’s lone chair as a valet for his suit jackets. A white porcelain sink clung precariously to one wall.

He felt anxious, ashamed. In some fundamental way he felt like he had failed Joss and this girl in his care.

He shoved his hands into his coat pockets and looked down at the grungy carpet.

But then Badge spoke to him for the first time, her chirping voice a lovely intrusion in the silence:

“Oh, this is just what I needed, warm water!”

She ran to the sink, tossing her backpack on the bed. She cranked the left faucet and plunged her hands into the bowl repeatedly. Then she rubbed the soap bar until it gave up a thick lather and cleaned her face. When she was done toweling off, she turned on the water again, this time cold, cupping her hands to take several deep drinks.

Satisfied, she looked over her shoulder at the two adults.

“This looks perfectly safe to me.”

Her eyes swept from one side of the room to the other, then fixed on Reese.

“Thank you so much for helping me.”

In that moment, he couldn’t remember ever feeling such pure gratitude. He wanted to hug her for this simple declaration.

Instead, to keep his balance, he threw out a question he had held for some time: “You weren’t ever scared of me, were you?”

“No, why would I be?”

Badge laughed, her wide mouth stretching in merriment. Her voice was lyrical, her speech like a song slowed down so everyone could follow along.

“I saw you when you first came to the camp last night. You were staring at me all the time. Sorta creepy, but in a funny way, not a scary way, you know.”

She sat down on the bed and, framed by the coverlet, her eyes turned a shade of sweet blue that Reese found dazzling. He knew the phrase “cornflower blue” and thought this must be that color.

“And then you kept following me all day. But you never attacked me, so I figured you weren’t bad, you know. I mean, I thought maybe you were some kind of pervert. But the bashful kind, not a sicko. Or maybe just curious.

“And anyways, I was curious too.”

The girl raised her eyebrows then as if the whole thing was as obvious and benign as a summer breeze. Reese thought she seemed to take this for an adventure, an escapade to tell her grandchildren one day rather than a situation whose outcome was likely to be deadly.

Badge tipped her head toward Joss to conclude the explanation.

“So when she joined you at Sunny Side’s, I knew everything was going to be all right. I mean, you wouldn’t hurt me with your girlfriend around, would you?”

Relying on animal instinct or intuition or just the limited imagination of youth, she had read him, sussed out his relationship with Joss in a glance. He felt overwhelmed and humbled by this girl’s faith in him. It was unfounded, he knew, but he wanted to make her fairy-tale beliefs come true.

Listening to this exchange, Joss settled into the new mood Badge had created and shrugged off her overcoat. She smiled at him at last and he gulped a bit to cover all the emotions welling in his throat. She folded her coat into a square and set it on the floor in a corner of the room

Warmed up enough, Badge imitated Joss’s actions, shedding her coat and dropping it onto the carpet.

As she moved around the bed, her sweater rose to reveal a wide swath of swollen stomach.

The skin of her torso was smooth and pale, firmly stretched across her thickened waist, and punctuated by a protruding belly button that left no room for doubt: she was pregnant.

Both Reese and Joss gasped at the revelation; Joss was the first to close her gaping mouth to speak:

“Oh, honey, why didn’t you say something? When is your baby due? Do you need anything?”

Badge cut off the babble of questions with a chuckle, twisting her lips to one side in a way that scrunched up her nose.

“I’m O.K. now, more than O.K. really. I think it’s due in September. Or maybe October. An autumn baby for sure, you know.”

Reese was astounded at the blithe tone of Badge’s remarks.

Before she had seemed content, even oblivious to the danger around her; now she seemed equally unconcerned about the peril inside her.

In his experience, pregnant women were always on high alert, attuned to even the slightest threat to themselves or their unborn children. He didn’t believe Badge was dimwitted at all; her survival on the streets proved otherwise. But she was brimming with such remarkable optimism that her certainty spilled over into bravado.

Badge thought things would go her way simply because she willed it so.

Reese remembered when he too had been this reckless, this buoyant. Before life – and his foolish choices -- had knocked the confidence out of him.

As Joss gathered a breath to object to Badge’s predicament and her cavalier attitude, a soft thump rattled the door.


+++++++++


Larry the Worm delivered the three bags of take-out food with only a smirk and an extended hand by way of comment. Reese thought the man had been tipped enough, but Joss gave another twenty just to get rid of him.

The two women took up places on the bed, while Reese sat in the chair facing them. He was miffed that the Emerald Garden had supplied two plastic spoons along with the wooden chopsticks he always required. It seemed that someone had tipped them off about his dinner guests.

As they ate, passing the cartons in a circle, Badge chattered freely about her work as a foot soldier in the vast financial scheme that now threatened her.

She explained that she was the chief of a street brigade numbering twenty to twenty-five boys and girls.

“We call ourselves the Animals.”

“Why?”

Badge answered Joss’s question around a mouthful of egg roll.

“I always loved that book Wind in the Willows when I was a kid. So when they started calling me Badger because I was from Wisconsin, I decided to make up names for the rest of them. You know, like Otter, Toad, Mole, Ratty. Like that. So we were just the Animals, you know.”

Their base of operation was the homeless encampment, although not all members of the cashing crew lived there.
She received her orders from a man named Kehinde, who handed her a deck of prepaid debit cards which she distributed to her team. Kehinde explained that at an appointed hour the balance limits and withdrawal limits on each debit card would be raised by computer hackers operating at secret sites around the world.

Badge interrupted her narrative to complain: “That was Kehinde who tried to grab me tonight. Now why’d he want to go and do that? I never did him any harm. I was handing him the money just like always, but then he goes and grabs me.”

She threw a soft look at Reese.

“If you hadn’t of come along, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

Smiling at her good fortune, Badge continued to explain her part in the heist operation.

On the night of each strike, Kehinde contacted her by cell phone with the locations of hundreds of ATM machines across the city. At her orders the Animals fanned out waiting for word to spring into action. When she gave them the sign, her friends withdrew millions of dollars from these hacked accounts, stuffing the cash into their backpacks as they moved across the city.

At the end of the spree, her cashing crew would bring their bulging satchels to a designated drop point, where Kehinde would take the money and disappear.

The following morning, he would give Badge a single backpack filled with cash to distribute among the Animals as their payment for services rendered.

Badge said that on four nights between August and March her cashing crew made about three thousand withdrawals, stealing at least two million dollars each night. She didn’t know if there were other street crews similar to hers, but she suspected there were.

“And why did you give money to Friends In Deed?”

Although his mind boggled at the vast scope of the financial scam, Reese wanted to bring the story down to the neighborhood level.

Badge’s face shone with what he assumed was true pride of accomplishment.

“The Takashitas were so kind to me when I first came to the city. You can’t begin to imagine how good they were to me. They helped me a lot, so I wanted to help them back.”

“But you knew you were skimming from this big heist, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I knew. But I figured no one would miss the little bit I was taking. And the Takashitas could really use the money. And anyway, you know, it’s sort of a special place; it’s where Otter and I met.”

Her face colored in a charming way at this intimate revelation. Reese liked the soft pink that rushed high on her cheeks and he thought the rosy color of her lips deepened too.

“So I figured it was right to do something good for them after all they did for me and Otter. Kinda of pay them back, you know. I wrapped those selfies around the money so it wouldn’t seem so crass. Make it more personal, like.”

She looked at Reese as though waiting for his approval.

He couldn’t give it, but he did smile at her, the first time he had done that since laying eyes on her two nights ago.

“It’ll be alright, Badge. We’ll figure out something.”

He wasn’t sure if this was empty comfort, but he didn’t want to say anything to deflate her self-assurance. If she continued to be confident in herself and trust him, things would work better for them all.

Flailing and hesitancy would just get them killed, that he knew for certain.


+++++++++


When Larry the Worm interrupted again, he came bearing a gift.

“Shelley and Magda and the rest of ‘em girls pitched in to buy you this.”

He thrust a small rectangular carton toward Reese. The lid said “Neapolitan Ice Cream” in red, white and green letters with an Italian flag draped across the frosty words.

Reese thanked him for the surprising gesture.

“And here’s another spoon.” Larry brandished a metal utensil he had stowed in the breast pocket of his shirt. “Bring it back to the desk when you’re done.”

The tri-color dessert demanded a different seating arrangement, so the three sprawled on the bed side by side, backs against the headboard with Joss squeezed in the middle.

As the ice cream shuttled from one end of the line to the other, the talk took a more mellow turn.

Joss spoke about Taylor, who was only a few years younger than Badge and the Animals. She talked about his school and his sports teams and chess club.

Then, her eyes drifting toward a corner of the room, Reese watched as darker thoughts overtook her. He thought the shade of the recent encounter with the machine must still be in her mind as she spoke about Taylor’s difficult birth and about leaving him behind when she went to Iraq. But when she saw Badge’s face fall, Joss rallied to a lighter mood, telling funny stories about her dad’s love for baseball, dancing, and mechanical inventions.

Then it was his turn. So Reese told them stories about his adventures picking apples in Washington and oranges in California. He underlined the fun and camaraderie, the sweat and hard work, hinting at other stories too raunchy to tell in mixed company.

These were not actually his memories, but tall tales he remembered from his father. But they sounded better than the forlorn truths about his own past, so he shared the stolen stories as if they were his.

When the ice cream was finished, Badge scooted down until her feet reached the end of the bed and her crown pressed against the headboard. Her words came slower and slower, her energy flagging at long last.

So Reese switched off the bare bulb swinging overhead and they settled into a companionable silence, the two adults still sitting upright while the girl tried to sleep.

But Badge wasn’t quite through.

“I want to give back the money, John. It’s caused too much trouble,” she whispered. “Can you help me do that?”

He gentled his voice in the darkness.

“I don’t see how that would make a difference. What’s done is done.”

“But I could show good will by giving it back. To whoever it was that stole it, you know.”

“True, you could, Badge. But right now we don’t even know who to give it to.”

She didn’t say anything for a long while and Reese thought she had fallen asleep. But then he heard a soft mewling noise like a stunned animal caught in a trap.

“That boy that got shot, that was Ratty.” She hiccupped over a sob.

“A good kid, but he always moved too slow. That bullet was meant for me. Ratty shouldn’t have caught it. It should’ve been me.”

He couldn’t let her go to sleep with that grisly image in her head.

“No, you need to stay alive, Badge. For your baby. That’s what you’re here for now.”

Her quiet weeping continued for another minute or two, but then tapered off into a rhythmic snuffling.

Reese felt his chest tighten then. He felt like he’d won a great reward, as if Badge had done him a kindness simply by falling asleep in his bed.

He was thankful that this troubled girl could take some little drop of solace from his presence beside her.

He squeezed Joss’s hand where it lay on the mattress between them and that eased the ache in his heart a bit.

He couldn’t see his way out of this, not yet.

But Joss seemed confident in him and that was steadying; she thought he was going in the right direction and was committed to the ride. He was comforted by her silent presence and longed to hug her to his chest.

Yearning strummed a familiar beat in him. He wanted her, as always, this constant desire pumping through him even here.

But they were on duty. So instead he leaned his head back against the wall. He was tired. Now that the voice in his ear was silent, all those scratchy thoughts and coiling emotions that threatened to swamp him escaped in a stuttering sigh.

“I’ll take the first watch, John. You need to sleep.” Joss’s silky voice curled through his mind.

“If you sleep now, you’ll be ready for tomorrow.”

He didn’t want to sleep, couldn’t abandon the mission, even though his head was throbbing with fatigue.

He wanted to argue, wanted to make the words obey and come out in whole sentences, but they skittered away and wouldn’t be tamed.

She was right, he knew.

“Time to stand down, soldier.”

Joss sounded firmer now, her words an irresistible command guiding him where he longed to go.

He sank into the mattress until he was prone, his face pressed into her hip, his arm flung across her lap.

Her warm hand stroked the hair at his temple, laying down a gentle pattern until he drifted off, surrendering at last.

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