By Lauryn Poynor
|Parts: One / Two / Three /|
He had just come downstairs when he heard it -- a soft knock on the door. Fishing in a suitcase, Murphy pulled out a plaid shirt, but decided not to bother putting it on. It was the weekend – maybe the last one – but still the weekend, even if the office seemed to trail after him lately like a dog on a leash.
Murphy opened the door and there he stood – the last person he ever expected to see. Steele was dressed entirely in black: ribbed turtleneck sweater, black slacks, soft-soled black shoes – as if he’d just wandered in from the scene of a jewel heist. The odds were probably even. Who really knew how the unrepentant louse spent his off hours? Murphy had tried to find out one moonlit evening but had been given the slip so effortlessly he knew the cause was lost. Their eyes met and he stepped back warily. Steele in black always set off his danger sense.
Steele poised at the threshold, a faint smile on his lips, as if even he couldn’t believe he’d turned up here. “Well, are you just going to stand there and drip dry, Murphy, or are you going to let me in?”
Murphy moved aside, suddenly reminded of his bare feet and jeans. “I was in the shower.” He raked a hand through his still wet hair.
“Ah, well that’s good.” Steele gaze flicked past Murphy’s shoulder. “For a moment I thought I was interrupting something.”
“So did I.” He looked Steele up and down and quipped, “Like a daylight theft of the Koh-i-Noor diamond.”
Steele stared back at him with perfect equanimity. Even the cat burglar version of Steele had a sheen about him, as if he’d just stepped out of the pages of some glossy magazine.
“What an imagination you have, Murphy! I was invited to the opening of a fashionable art gallery. Isn’t it de rigueur to wear black?” He strode past into the living room. “As for that famous jewel, it’s in the Tower of London last time I checked.”
“And when was that?”
There was the merest pause, no more than the beat of a second. Steele raised a sardonic eyebrow. “Do you ever get the feeling that your life is no longer your own?”
He didn’t feel sympathy -- that was unthinkable where Steele was concerned -- but he did feel a distinct pang of recognition. “Yeah, that’s happening a lot lately.”
“When you came to the door half dressed I thought perhaps you and the lovely Ms. Webster . . .” Steele waved a hand. “Déjà vu and all that, with everyone barging in.”
“Sherry?” Murphy tried to make his face impenetrable. “No, that chapter’s over.”
His hopes were dashed the man would ever take a hint; Steele’s eyes were alight with curiosity. “I take it she could read you like a book,” he replied with that decisive air that fooled clients into thinking he’d favored them, not with some wild guess, as per usual, but with some bold flash of insight.
Steele’s observation was closer to the truth than he liked to admit, but it was only half the story. Sherry was a great girl, in bed and out, but she reminded him painfully of someone else, someone whose mental gears were always turning, someone who, with enviable timing, could dust off an uncommon skill. The movie quotes thing was where it started to get eerie. He knew it was crazy, but the combo made him want to run like hell.
He pointedly remained on his feet as Steele commandeered the sofa and stretched out his long legs in front of him. No need to let Steele think he wasn’t ready to toss him out on his ear at the first opportunity.
“You’re a damnably poor host, Murphy. Won’t you at least offer me a drink?”
“There’s beer in the fridge.” He waited for the snobbish remark, inevitable as the sunrise, the sort that Steele had refined to such an art that he could have trademarked it, but his uninvited guest merely padded to the kitchen, retrieved a long-neck and popped it open with the bottle opener. Steele returned to the territory he’d staked out on the couch, casually tipping back the beverage and taking a long swig.
“Coaster?” Steele queried, excruciatingly polite.
Murphy handed him one that he’d picked up at a neighborhood bar. He felt a sensation like tiny pin pricks run up his bare arms. Steele rarely missed a target of opportunity, so he had to be softening him up. The trouble was, he couldn’t imagine why he’d bother, at this late date. Laura and Bernice had done their vigil, first one, then the other, camped out along with the moving boxes, trying to talk him down from the proverbial ledge like he was Alfred R. Hollis, the suicidal bank clerk. But his mind was made up – all sales final -- and he had a new set of luggage and a plane ticket to Denver to prove it.
He might as well get the charade over with. “Did Laura send you?”
Steele laughed softly, raising his eyes to the ceiling. “God, no. Reminding you that I’m still around would be the inverse of her strategy.”
“Then why are you here?” He waited, knowing that any disclosure would come by the most circuitous route.
Steele set down his beer and sat up, feet apart on the floor, hands resting loosely on his knees. There was an unaccustomed line to his posture, more open, less guarded, as if some of his emotional caution had worn slightly thin.
Murphy’s eyes narrowed. Maybe it was another Steele gambit, as finely tailored as one of his suits, but the gaze that lifted to meet his own was almost uncomfortably clear and direct. “I’ve always respected the art of making a graceful exit,” he began.
“I guess you would, in your line of work.”
Steele looked mildly chagrined, and on somewhat closer inspection, visibly frayed around the edges. “On the other hand, these past few days have been purgatory. If you’re trying to step aside and do the noble thing, well, it’s not exactly working.”
He couldn’t resist the comeback. “Tell me that Laura has you doing legwork and I’ll die a happy man.”
“It’s only a matter of a few hours, I’m sure.”
He gave a slow, sideways grin. It was victory of a sort, though it came a little late. “Well you can’t hide out here.”
“You should see what we’ve all been reduced to in your absence. Miss Wolf broke a nail hefting one of those doorstop directories of yours.”
“Skip tracing is hell.”
“Even I’ve grown accustomed to your face – glaring at me over the sports page every morning.”
He knew what had to come next. Laura. He braced himself, but Steele fell silent. Could it be that even he didn’t have the audacity to play that trump card? It was pointless anyway. Murphy’s throat tightened. He didn’t need to be told how Laura was taking it. He’d seen the look on her face as she’d turned to go, as if he’d neatly managed to cut her heart in two.
Feeling numb, his brain on automatic, he watched Steele’s long fingers trace a pattern in the frosting of his beer glass. Those fingers were deceptively strong, a fact he had discovered once when he’d ambushed Steele in an alley and had tried to shake him loose.
“Do you remember the Kenji Ito case? The night when you went searching for the girl?”
Murphy startled, collecting his wits. How did he do that? Practically read his mind. There was a lot about that night that left him twisted up inside. His face flushed. “Forget the teamwork speech. It won’t work anymore. It can’t work –“
Steele was up on his feet. “But it worked splendidly, Murphy. Me, you, Laura, Bernice.” But as he spoke the familiar words, there was an air of failed gallantry about him, as if he were a captain at the point of a doomed cavalry charge.
Murphy stood there, arms loose at his sides, feeling the fight begin to drain out of him. “Look, you knew, she knew that once you came on the scene things could never be the same. Someone had to be the odd man out.”
“Self sacrificing of you Murphy, but I hate winning in a forfeit. It’s rather less than a woman like Laura deserves.”
He knew Steele was trying to goad him into a reaction, hit him squarely where it hurt the most. “You think you see everything, but you don’t,” he shot back. “It’s time I left. It’s past time. I have to carve out something on my own.”
Steele nodded his acquiescence with more fellow feeling than the other would have guessed. “There we have a meeting of the minds, Murphy. I’ve seen enough of our sharp-elbowed and determined Miss Holt to wonder if the agency will ever be anything but indubitably hers -- no matter whose name is on that door.”
He rubbed his chin in a gesture of resignation. “Funny how life turns out. You, me, Laura, this whole crazy triangle.”
“I suppose there’s the plot of a bad movie somewhere in there.”
“The thing is, even the subplots are getting weird. Take Sherry for instance –“
“Couldn’t agree more, but she seems more like your type than mine.”
Steele’s appraisal was more frank than he expected. “I’ll admit I harbored certain fantasies.”
“I should have known you would.” But the territorial pose he’d adopted, hands on hips, was more out of reflex than active jealousy.
“Down Murphy! Not the kind you think. She’d make a smashing partner for Trivial Pursuit. They’ve come out with a Silver Screen Edition. We could while away the hours, matching our wits in every category.” Steele smiled softly at the possibilities.
He felt himself flinch. He was no Carl Sagan, but it didn’t take a scientist to know that the cosmos had folded in upon itself and somehow formed Steele’s female mirror image.
“See, that’s what’s scary. I pick up a random woman in a bar and you might as well be twins!”
Steele’s brows knit in eloquent confusion. “Come again?”
“She’s another you! It all fits! The misdirection about what she really did for a living, the movie quotes, the odd skills –“
“Like psychoanalysis?” Steele pursed his lips doubtfully. “Not really up my street.”
“Well, if you’re going to nitpick – “
Steele held up both palms in mock surrender.
Murphy paced energetically, his brain on the brink of a truth that was stranger than fiction. “I had a shot at a perfectly good romance, maybe even something more, but there you were, right between us, just like with Laura!”
Steele slowly backed away as if avoiding a cantankerous wino on the street. “Murphy, old chap. I haven’t seen you like this since that hot, hazy day in the desert. I’ve never known gold fever to have residual effects.”
“It’s not gold fever!”
“Then I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything!”
“Erm, maybe we should take this one step at a time,” Steele said placatingly. “Perhaps Sherry has a colleague that could help.”
“I don’t need a shrink,” he said tightly through his teeth. “I just need you to be eight hundred and fifty miles away!”
“Out of sight, out of mind and all that, but are you sure it will work?”
Murphy swallowed hard. “It has to.”
“I’m no expert, but willing a thing doesn’t always make it so.”
“So now you’re my therapist, too!”
Steele appeared to examine this wild and crazy notion with the thoughtful sobriety of a judge. “Since you brought it up,” he offered, “there are time honored ways of getting things out of one’s system, as it were. At least there always are in the movies.”
Murphy held his head in his hands and groaned. “I knew I should have taken that early flight out.”
“Nonsense, Murphy. No time like the present.”
He circled the notion warily. “OK, I’ll bite. What do they do in the movies?
Steele plunged in with his usual enthusiasm. “Well, with two male antagonists there’s often some form of epic battle. A knock down drag out fight is rather typical.”
Murphy’s lips drew back in a smile. “This therapy is sounding better already.”
The look that crossed Steele’s face said he hadn’t been quite as clever as he thought he had. “On the other hand, they could have an epic card game or an epic wine tasting.”
“I think you got it right the first time.”
“I can see this method is striking a chord,” Steele said dryly. “Been itching for this chance, have you?”
“Since day one.”
“It’s not often I would give someone who wants to beat my brains out a free chance at it, at least, not willingly.”
“Maybe you should have held a raffle. I bet there’d be a line around the block.”
“This is in the service of a higher calling. The interest of science.” Steele rolled up his sleeves.
He felt a sudden letdown. “But if it’s therapy, won’t you have to let me win?”
Steele put a finger to his forehead. “Focus, Murphy, focus. If the outcome is known in advance it would hardly be a proper experiment, eh?”
“OK, then. You’re on.”
Steele paused. “There is one slight problem.”
“Too late to back out now.”
“Wouldn’t want to for the world. But we’ll have to invent a cover story before we meet Laura and Miss Wolf at the airport tomorrow.”
“Good point. If they see us looking like the sequel to the last ‘Rocky’ movie they’ll never stop asking questions.”
“We’ll say we went to a bar for a farewell drink and then, ah . . .“ Steele motioned him to elaborate.
“Right, a farewell drink, and we were minding our own business until some drunken bums started, uh, casting aspersions on --” Murphy ran a hand distractedly through his hair. “What were they casting aspersions on?”
“Or on whom? Think of the sort of bar room insults that usually start fists flying.”
Steele arched an eyebrow. “My mother, Mrs. Steele?”
“I don’t think Laura would buy that one.”
“Then what would win her over to our side? Remind me again. Doesn’t she have a favorite sports team?”
“Depends on which sport, but for fan loyalty through thick and thin, I’d say the Stanford Cardinal.”
“Excellent! Let’s recap, then, shall we? We were having a sociable last drink when some inebriates –“
“From USC –“
“Precisely. USC, insulted the Stanford Cardinal!”
“We taught them a lesson they’ll never forget!” he cried, imagining a bench clearing melee of major league proportions.
Steele beamed at their imaginary triumph. “We did, didn’t we?”
“I think we’ve got a winner.”
“Do you think she’ll want gory details? Whether they were shouting filthy cheers or something?”
He glared back at Steele. “Whaddaya mean? You think we’re all a bunch of soccer hooligans in the good old US of A?”
“I stand corrected.”
“I’m kidding. Hey, it’s USC. Whatever you can accuse them of, they’re totally guilty.”
“Ah, a case of ‘consider the source.’”
Murphy rubbed his hands together. It would be fun to get Laura all worked up. “Now that’s settled,“ he said happily, “let’s ring the bell and get this show on the road.”
“Eager to throw that first punch, eh, Murphy?”
“Bingo, but first we have to get the rules straight.”
“Rules? Tsk. Advantage Murphy,” Steele winked. “I’ve always fought better without them, but no matter. Let’s keep the outcome respectable.”
“I’m sure for you that’ll be a first.” Murphy glanced around the room. “Rule number one, be careful with the furniture. It’s rented and I don’t need another moving expense right now.” The van and the movers, now on the highway with everything he owned, had already cost him plenty.
“Pity,” Steele sighed theatrically. “Fighting with furniture is a grand old swashbuckling tradition. ’The Prisoner of Zenda’ is a classic case in point. It’s odd,” he ruminated, “I prefer the Stewart Granger version even though in most respects it’s a carbon copy of the original.”
“Rule number two, no movie quotes.”
Steele shot him a look of disparagement that was only half unserious. “Spoil sport. Though, in fairness, I should give myself some handicap.”
“Rule number three …” He was beginning to enjoy this. He left the rulebook hanging in the air and launched a swift, staggering blow to Steele’s midsection. Though the motion was a blur the strike was a year in the making, a smashing, pile-driving payback for every moment of jealousy, resentment, and petty frustration he’d been forced to endure at his rival’s hands. Like the sudden escalation of a cold war, this first salvo felt good, no matter what future retaliation might rain down on his head. With a broad grin he surveyed the damage – the imperturbable Remington Steele, knocked back on his rear and staring up at him, his photogenic features perfectly dumbstruck as he rose painfully and slowly to his feet.
“I underestimated you, Murphy,” Steele forced out, as if his breath had been knocked somewhere south of his shoes. “Nothing like a spot of good old fashioned cheating to get the ball rolling.”
“I never said I would warn you.” He saw Steele’s palm cradle the spot where his fist had landed. “I’ll bet you haven’t been hit that hard in a while.”
Steele mentally calibrated. “Perhaps you’re right. I’ve had a bit of time off for good behavior.”
Murphy grinned wolfishly. “Maybe you’re going soft.”
“I wouldn’t count on that.” Steele’s clear blue gaze was bold with mischief.
“Then help me move the coffee table.”
“Delighted. Your shameless cheating aside, how shall we continue the duration of the experiment?”
“Three minute rounds on points? That is, absent a knockdown or knockout?’’
“I think three rounds of three minutes would suffice. We don’t want to beat each other senseless.”
Murphy nodded agreement. “I’ll get an egg timer.” He fetched one from the kitchen. “This is fine as far as it goes, but how do we keep score?”
“Tricky business. We’ll have to self report. I hope you can remember the make of the lorry that hit you.”
“I’ll be sure to get the license plate.”
They moved the coffee table, end tables, lamps, and sofa, clearing an open area that, though not the circumference and four even squares of a boxing ring, was reasonably free of any obstacles. Murphy started the timer and set it down on the floor.
With initial self-consciousness, he and Steele bumped fists in a gloveless salute. They sprang apart, standing at a slight, upright angle from each other. Steele, Murphy noted, slipped easily into a proper boxing stance: legs apart, rear foot a half-step behind the lead foot, chin tucked, lead fist at eye level, rear fist held beside the chin. He moved on balance, weight on the balls of his feet.
“I hope there’s more like your first shot at me, old chap, or the morning line on you will begin to look rather foolish.” Steele went up on his toes and a sharp jab came out of the air and landed on Murphy’s chin. “Though I never was much of a favorites player, myself.”
He shook his head clear. “You worry about your odds and I’ll worry about mine.” Though hardly painless, he knew Steele’s first jab was more to gauge distance than to try to set him back on his heels. A second jab, more forceful, followed before he could adjust his guard. The punches were delivered slightly off angle rather than dead straight, making it harder to counter them with a solid blow.
“Let me know when you want me to stop warming up,” Steele shot back in the cocksure manner that had forever baited him.
Someone had taught him. Someone who was a pro. Murphy felt suckered, though his own first instincts had hardly been a model of fair play. That punch had been driven by pure emotion, and it was starting to look unlikely that that would win the day here. He tried to feint with his own jab and sneak in a right cross but the hit glanced off Steele’s shoulder.
He had faced down more powerful opponents, but few who seemed so cool and analytic. Steele had height and reach, two qualities that Murphy himself possessed though he was by nature a brawler who preferred to get in overpoweringly close rather than keep his distance and pick his man slowly apart. One thing he began to know for certain. He couldn’t just stand there and let Steele’s jabs keep rattling him. His brain was beginning to feel like a big bag of marbles.
“Surely you can do better than that, Murphy. Any more shady surprises lurking under that true-blue, boy scout exterior?”
“I suppose I should be impressed, but it’s a bit out of my frame of reference.”
Murphy noticed that Steele had slipped into a mixed guard, keeping his right up at the chin and his left hand lower to the body. He wondered if that punch to the midsection had done more damage than his opponent had let on. Even without knowing the answer to that Murphy saw an opportunity and went over the low guard with another right cross. This time his trajectory was bang on the money. The blow struck the side of the jaw and spun Steele half around with head-snapping force. Murphy stepped back to catch his breath and saw a dark swell of blood forming at the corner of Steele’s lip.
Finally, he’d connected, but good as that had felt at first, his hand was starting to throb like bad toothache. He flexed his fingers, thinking of times he’d bashed crooks in an alley or been in stupid bar fights after the night of a big game. Once, at the scene of an autopsy, he’d learned that there were twenty-seven bones in the human hand, most of them pretty fragile. By some miracle he’d never broken any of them, but Steele had, he suddenly remembered. It was a small price to pay to give the Laura-stealing Creighton Phillips his comeuppance. It was also a pretty good knock down, and the recipient had shown no inclination to get back up again.
Steele massaged his jaw. “I suppose that counts, though it’s rather conventionally above board. Score one for the Boy Scout handbook.”
There was a soft irony in the cultured tones, as though Steele knew they were at odds with the real picture: the hair, once finely coiffed, that spilled carelessly over his forehead, the bruised cheekbone under pale skin, the dark outlines of his body purposeful and quick. His ungloved fists were up at the ready and there was no flinching now. Murphy saw in his eyes what Creighton Phillips had seen at close range: a street fighter who would cheerfully dismantle him, once he got the taste for it.
Even as he saw it coming the two-handed combination plowed straight into his ribs. It felt like a double-edged dagger scraping bone and he bent, heaving, tucking in his fists to cover up. Through a mist of pain, he saw that Steele had done the one thing the rulebook said he wouldn’t dare – run right at the guns of a bigger fighter. A second flurry came at the same entry point and Murphy reached out, swaying, and pulled Steele almost bodily against him. They traded short, hard strokes to the gut and sides until they were leg-weary and slick with sweat. Steele was getting the worst of it and Murphy tried to hug his shoulders, to pin down his arms, but, with an effort, Steele ducked underneath and stepped back to one corner of their makeshift fighting ground.
They both stood off for a moment and Steele brushed back the hair from his eyes. He looked around as if he were trying to get his bearings. “Ah, I think I see an opening.”
Murphy’s teeth showed in a grin. “You just keep telling yourself that.”
“On your chessboard, actually. Are you playing White?”
He edged over to Steele’s corner. An end table was topped with a chessboard, a game interrupted. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. Time out.”
“There’s no time out in boxing. Merely the sixty seconds between rounds.”
“Well you’re the one who dragged a chess game into it.”
“Some of us are capable of following two things at once.”
They were interrupted by the sharp ping of the kitchen timer. “Why don’t we take ten minutes?” Murphy offered. “A break, with a little chess on the side. Then we can score the first boxing round.” He didn’t look forward to that. Scoring their own rounds had sounded possible at first, but who was he kidding? They’d been known to expend endless energy bickering over a parking space.
Steele seemed equally as eager to delay the prospect. “Chess does have a way of clarifying the mind. I suspect that might come in handy.”
Murphy stared down at the chessboard and pieces, wondering why he’d left them there. It seemed silly and sentimental, as if, one day, he and Sherry could hit the reset button on the relationship. But he’d made that impossible, pushing her away, and he knew they had said their last goodbyes. He forced his thoughts back to the present, and his features into a semblance of nonchalance. “Sherry was playing White, actually.” She always did like to make the first move.”
Steele raised an eyebrow suggestively. “And you let a woman like that slip through your fingers.”
Steele always had a way of cutting to the quick and this time he was determined not to let him. “My game is a little rusty so she was teaching me,” he said, stubbornly sticking to the obvious. They both settled cross-legged on the floor on opposite sides of the board.
“Indeed. A variation of the Sicilian Defense, if I guess rightly.”
“Did you learn that from the movies?”
“No, but I’ve crossed a few Sicilians in my time,” he deadpanned. Steele surveyed the board, steepling his fingers under his chin. “Bravo, Murphy. The Black side of the Dragon variation is not for the timid.”
“Yeah, I was finding that out. You kind of have to go for broke.”
“I see you have sacrificed your rook to make way for an attack against White’s line of pawns.” Steele eyed him speculatively. “That level of risk rather goes against the grain for you, doesn’t it?”
“Maybe. What’s your point?”
“Just that it’s interesting that your Sherry, a trained psychologist, chose to teach this defense. It suggests to me that she wished you to adopt less cautious habits.”
Irked at the armchair analysis, he stubbornly folded his arms. “I’ve got a simpler explanation. Maybe it was the next lesson in her chess book.”
“A happy coincidence,” Steele said sharply, “because it appears to have worked.”
“Don’t make me ask how.” The conversation was beginning to give him heartburn.
“What could be a more obvious assumption of risk? Here you are, leaving behind the safe ground of the agency and Los Angeles. Starting up your own shop, in the wild, wild west.”
He rolled his eyes. “Denver’s pretty civilized these days. I’m not even packing my six-shooter.”
“Merely a colorful metaphor. Even I know it to be a thriving, modern city.”
“With a lot of thriving modern criminals, I hope.”
“One hears gossip.”
Murphy propped his chin on his elbow, thinking his own thoughts. “I guess I should take along something familiar. “Maybe I’ll bring my old dusting kit. Even when we were at Havenhurst Laura was always borrowing it.”
“In self defense, perhaps,” Steele replied sardonically. “Last time you employed it you accused her of murder.”
“Well you were the one yammering on about incontrovertible evidence.”
“You were fired as I recall.”
“I bet Alan Grievey would have loved that touch.”
“Pity it didn’t stick,” Steele quipped. “I think Laura’s incapable of holding a grudge where you’re concerned. She seems quite enamored of all those deadly virtues of yours.”
It was said with more acceptance than rancor, but Murphy couldn’t deny feeling a certain satisfaction. All these months the thought of Laura measuring him against Steele had chipped away at his natural confidence. “Does that bother you?”
“I view it plainly as a fact. It’s practically engraved on her forehead, ‘In Murphy We Trust.”’
“If it’s any consolation, it didn’t happen overnight.”
“Care to enlighten us on how you cashed in all those chits?”
Underlying the question was more than the usual sarcasm, an impulse that sounded almost sincere. “What, you want me to give you a crash course in honesty?”
“Don’t be simple-minded, Murphy. I can never be you, and you can’t be me. Nature has laws against that sort of thing. But perhaps there are times we might meet in the middle.”
Murphy jumped up to pace the carpet as the proverbial light bulb flashed on above his head. “I knew there was a real reason you showed up here! My leaving has got you running scared. No more good old reliable Murphy to cover for you. You have to act like a real partner now!”
Steele didn’t appear at pains to deny it. “Well, then, who better to show me how?”
“Trust 101? This is not gonna work! Besides, I’m not sure what I can tell you. I guess Havenhurst had a lot to do with it.”
“Truly? From what I’ve observed that environment was more likely to sow distrust than the opposite.”
“Any port in a storm. It’s a long story.” He settled back down on the floor.
The reunion had opened up old wounds, and they had never really healed. “To tell you the truth, I feel a little spooky talking about Alan Greivey now he’s dead, but while he was at Havenhurst it was like the whole place took on his personality. Patting a client on the back with one hand, ready to stick a shiv in a partner’s ribs with the other. It was pretty cutthroat.”
“That much seems rather clear. Given the envy sweepstakes at that reunion of yours, I’d have advised you to watch your back.”
“You wouldn’t have to tell me twice. There were seventy detectives at the agency so we were all pretty desperate to get noticed, no matter what it took.”
Steele’s brow furrowed. “Before I met your old chums, I always thought a room full of detectives would be rather collegial. All of the greatest exemplars of the art seemed so civilized: Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan, Philo Vance. Though, I’ll grant, there’s an infinite variety in your profession. I suppose some of the more hardboiled types could cause a ruckus.”
“Well, when I met Laura she wasn’t Sam Spade, but, even at Havenhurst, she stood out. Not only could she beat the men at their own game, she was the smartest one in the room. Some guys took it personally. I tried to take it as a challenge.”
“Miss Holt rather does bring that instinct to the fore.”
His mind wandered for a moment. “It didn’t hurt that she had a face like an angel, and legs that went on for nearly forever ---“
Steele held up a hand. “Yes, on that standard we mutually agree, though your schoolboy sonnet is not exactly Shakespeare.”
“I was just getting to the part where she liked the same pizza –“
“Well, could you skip past to the detective part?”
“We just clicked on our first case as partners, but the final solution was Laura’s. I wasn’t even sure I understood it. She used some kind of vector theory to locate a missing girl.”
“Ah, so mathematics does have a purpose in real life. What came next?”
“We got thrown together on more cases. And I started to realize something. Of all the partners I ever had she was the only one who didn’t try to sabotage me, or take credit for my hard work. She always had my back and played fair, and that was enough in my book.”
“And was the feeling mutual?”
“Well, she still kept her guard up, that was SOP. But one day, over pizza, she confessed that she felt the same way I did.”
“So that’s the winning combination,” Steele mused. “Constancy and fair play.” He drummed his fingers idly on the chessboard. “You’re not making it easy for me, are you?”
He grinned. “Not on a bet.”
“Any more pearls of wisdom?”
“Stay out of her snack drawer.”
“Duly noted. But I was hoping for something of slightly more import.”
“Well, if you think I’m just going to feed you the answers –“
“The possibility did cross my mind.”
Murphy smiled. “You know, I kind of hate to miss the next few weeks. The thought of you having to do some real work for a change makes me wish I had a hidden camera.”
“What small-minded pleasures you delight in, Murphy.”
“Hey, a chance like that only comes around once.” His expression grew more serious. “OK, I’ll give you a freebie. You know the hardest thing I had to learn with Laura?”
“It’s your show. Do tell.”
“Not to rescue her. She was fearless but she seemed so small, so fragile. But try to save her bacon and she can cut you off at the knees.”
“Or perhaps even a bit higher.”
“Yeah,” he winced. “You have to be there when she gets in over her head, though. You’ll develop a sixth sense about that.”
“Not to worry. I’ve had some practice saving women who don’t want to be saved.”
Murphy wondered about the female partners Steele might have had in his mysterious past. One thing was for certain, they weren’t housewives, or secretaries, or even power-suited business types, if that ice cool blonde he’d hooked up with for The Five Nudes of Cairo was any indication. She was a ‘hands off” proposition, no damsel in distress, though the sort to get into real hot water. Maybe Steele didn’t need his advice after all.
“I guess Laura’s set on teaching you the detective business.”
“Who knows to what heights I might climb under her tutelage?”
He had lots of mixed feelings about that. On the one hand Steele needed to learn, and learn fast. And Murphy conceded he had, even if Steele was mildly panicked about that progress now. Even more than just learning the ropes, he had the qualities that made a good detective: instinct, curiosity, toughness. Things you couldn’t teach.
On the other hand, the more Laura leaned on him, professionally, personally – well, that open territory was fraught with risk. Steele was a career criminal and Murphy could count on two fingers the ones he knew that didn’t revert back to type. And it wasn’t as if the man, whoever he really was, had been a miserable failure. He’d been celebrated in that world, if all those shadowy rumors were true. How long before he missed the life or it missed him, and he was drawn back in before Laura even knew it? Every day since he’d decided to leave for Denver Murphy worried over the contingency like a dog over a bone; every night it had him walking the halls.
He felt a sudden, petty need to take Steele down a peg. “It’s not all glamour, you know. It’s not even mostly glamour. It takes a lot of scut work to keep an agency going.” He tried to imagine Steele at the daily grind: squinting at microfilm records, deciphering autopsy reports, but it felt way off, like a gourmet learning to like cheese sandwiches.
“Be that as it may, there are perks.” Steele stood up, stretching his long limbs. “Ah, togetherness! Steele and Holt. Holt and Steele. Just the two of us. A little take-out from Claude’s, a perfectly chilled Blanc de Blanc. Even the popping of the cork provokes Pavlovian tingles of pleasure. Just perfect for a stakeout on a warm summer night –“
Picturing the scenario all too well, Murphy leapt back up to his feet. “Uh-uh! No all night stake outs. Tell her Murphy said so.”
“Really, old chap. You wouldn’t want there to be gaps in my education.”
“No, just a few in Laura’s.”
“I’ll still be chasing after her, mind, and not only in the way you imagine. For Miss Holt, detective work is a métier. A habit of being. I just dabble in it.”
“Well, some of us do it for a living.”
Steele frowned over the prospect. “Easy for you to say. You think like a policeman -- conventional, methodical, questioning. With a nasty, ingrained habit of prying at the truth. I think like an artist.”
“A criminal artist.”
Just so. Attacking a problem from the outside in. Systematic, but built for speed rather than distance. Occasionally brilliant.”
“Even genius must acquire some humility. And I think it might be unwise to toast my successes in present company.”
Murphy decided to take that as a compliment. “Well as crazy as it sounds to say this, you should follow your own instincts. The detecting ones, I mean. There’s only one Laura Holt. You can’t outwork her, and you can’t out logic her. Your job is to see what she doesn’t see.”
“A tall order, as I’m sure you realize.”
“Well, I bet you can come up with something in that twisted brain of yours.”
“It seems a thin thread to bind up a partnership. There’s a value in being of two unlike minds, but sometimes it scares the hell out of me.” Steele looked away, half-chagrined, as if the sharing of such a direct line of emotion were almost bad manners.
It felt equally strange to him, calming those fears, but his departure had set this in motion. He had to think of a way to make things work. “The two of you are different, I understand all that –“
“Do you really?” With a distracted air Steele paced the carpet, then he turned and stopped, breath coming hard, as if the effort had spent him. He stared off, his gaze on something in the distance. “I used to watch other people, in their well-ordered lives, at the end of a business day, spilling out of offices, onto the streets.”
Steele thrust his hands into his pockets. “I move among them more easily now, but I still feel rather like a ghost, even after a year of respectable solidity. A kind of pale summoning, a parlor trick. Perhaps that’s all the great Remington Steele was ever destined to be.”
Murphy guessed it was an occupational hazard for a man who changed identities for a living, but the quandary felt as foreign to him as life on Mars. He had a feeling that nothing he could say would really help. “He’s a lot more real than he was in the beginning. Sometimes he’s been a little too real,” he added ruefully, thinking of all the times the interloper had been a thorn in his side.
Steele’s eyes met his, fiercely alight. “You know what it takes, Murphy. What Laura must rely on. Will the act survive six more months, a year?”
The question brought him up short. “You’re asking me? I put guys like you away if I’m lucky. I don’t give them advice.”
“But if you did.”
For the conman to confide in him was so completely unexpected that he couldn’t seem to form an answer. He stood for a long moment, turning the problem over in his mind.
“There was this guy Havenhurst set the dogs on, but he gave us all the slip. Smartest man I ever met. He ran a five million dollar scam on one of their wealthy clients. It took years to set up. Along the way he and his accomplice became the toast of high society. They shopped at the same stores as all the rich, hung out at the same private clubs. I guess you’d know about that.”
“He said he found out a funny thing about the long con. You and your partner are both on the hook. And you spin it out so long you begin to believe it. It starts to look just like life. It was probably the closest thing to going straight he ever knew.”
“Philosopher kings, those old school types,” Steele observed without irony. “After more than a mere snatch and grab. Yet, even I will admit, it seems a rather winding road to respectability.”
“Since when have you ever followed the straight and narrow?”
Steele shot him a crooked smile. “I suppose you have a point.”
He was suddenly tired of criminal psychology. “Look, maybe you can make this partnership work, and maybe you can’t. Just remember. If it doesn’t, and Laura takes the fall, I’m coming after you. To remove part of your anatomy with an ice cream scoop. A part you’ll really miss.”
Despite the threat, there was relief in the set of Steele’s shoulders, as if he were grateful to be back on the safe home ground of their old antagonisms. With a wintry smile, he looked down at his watch. “Sorry, old chap. Time’s up.”
“What do you mean, time’s up?”
Steele drew back his fist and cold-cocked him.
Murphy sat next to Steele on the sofa, holding an icepack against his swollen temple. “How long was I out?”
“About five minutes or so.”
“Me and my Marquess of Queensbury rules.”
“This wouldn’t have happened if you’d been watching the clock.”
“Like a regular working stiff,” he joked.
“Ah, but you forget. You’re management now.”
“That’s going to take some getting used to. Any pointers on being a flashy frontman?”
Steele frowned thoughtfully. “Catnaps.”
“So am I. If you can manage sitting up, so much the better. Ever been to a Chamber of Commerce luncheon?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“A little discreet napping, and one always awakens feeling refreshed.”
Steele possessed more than a few feline qualities, he’d noticed. He had to admit when the man was stirred to action he seemed to have boundless energy. “Got that one. Any more advice?”
“Whatever you’re planning to charge for your services, double it.”
“I meant reasonable advice.”
“This is no time for modesty. You’re setting your own worth, the single most important thing one must do in the marketplace.”
“But all I’ve got is a storefront by a bail bonds office, a part-time secretary and some old file cabinets.”
“Human perception is infinitely accommodating, Murphy. Clear away the trappings and your clients will know they’re paying top dollar for your well worn expertise, not for the hire of your interior designer.”
It made a certain amount of sense, though he wasn’t sure he had the nerve to do it. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“When you’re ready for the next rung up the ladder, you’ll need the tailoring to match.” Steele handed him a business card. “Give this chap a call. He’s just making his mark in the Mile High City but he trained under the best.”
Murphy knew this was one area where the other man would never steer him wrong. Steele’s own self image demanded it. “I guess I can trust your word on that.” He ran a hand through his sandy hair. “I never thought of being the executive type. I guess a big corporate zoo like Havenhurst left a bad taste in my mouth.”
“Anyway, I didn’t want to be a gladhander like Alan Grievey. I think I took him out on you, especially at first. Laura was doing fine on her own, what did we need some smooth operator for? Even if his name was already on the letterhead.”
“Ah, well, you’re forgiven.” Steele replied magnanimously.
“Now I get to see how the other half lives.” The thought gave his stomach a few butterflies.
“I think you can summon up the requisite front office flair,” Steele observed. “After all, you were once my understudy, playing the head man to the loathsome Hoskins. Laura filled me in on everything: the cigar, the boy’s club boorishness to anything in a skirt. She was ready to kick that Remington Steele in the slats. Which was as it should be. You were tailoring your performance to the client. Well, in that case, the mark –“
“I guess it’s hard for you to tell them apart.”
“The ends are different, but the means are much the same. You still have to put on a convincing act. I have implicit faith in you, Murphy. How could you not succeed in your new situation, having daily benefit of my fine example?”
I’ll be sure to consult my notes.” It was their standard byplay, back and forth across the net, but that Steele believed he could carry it off meant a lot. It was like getting sent to the head of the class.
Steele stretched his limbs. “I’m glad we’ve had these little chats.”
“Puts a few things in perspective, doesn’t it?”
“They say confession is good for the soul,” remarked Steele philosophically. “But I can’t say it’s ever been good for business.”
“Well, anytime you get the urge to confess to the crime of the century, give me a call. My new agency could use the free publicity.”
Steele chuckled. “Laura would never speak to us again, but it would make a splash.”
He put down the ice pack and started for the kitchen. “I’m going to get another beer. Want one?” He might as well clean out the last of the fridge.
Murphy came back with the beers and settled on the sofa, clicking the TV remote to a hockey game. “Damn, I missed the first half of the LA Owls.”
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough head bashing for one day?” They watched as a player, illegally crosschecked from behind, careened helmet-first into the boards.
Murphy ignored him and stared at the game. A shot from the top of the right circle rebounded to the goalie’s right, and to the waiting stick of the Owl forward. He slammed the puck home to the open net. “The Owls are always in the cellar but they’re 4 and 2 since they signed Butch Moran. He’s a jerk, but he knows how to score.”
The camera panned to a celebratory shot of the LA Owls Cheerleaders, perky and bouncing.
Murphy grinned. “I bet they don’t grow ‘em like that where you come from.” The camera zoomed in on a blonde who was high-kicking her tanned legs with enthusiasm. “That’s Brooke. Loves riding her horse Mandy, and sunsets on the beach.”
“I didn’t realize you had such a knowledge of the roster,” Steele said dryly.
“I heard the Owls might be moving to Denver so I thought I’d keep up.”
“Do the authorities know of this stalking behavior?”
“Hey, I’m not following them, I’m just following them.”
“The sport of girl watching has its charms -- or would if it weren’t surrounded by over an hour of ice-bound mayhem. Watching padded gladiators fighting over a hard rubber disc is hardly my idea of fun.”
Murphy glared at the screen like a stubborn toddler. “Tough cookies. It’s my couch and my remote.”
“And your apparently appalling lack of manners.”
His face reddened. “Alright then, Emily Post. You pick.” He slapped the remote into Steele’s hands.
Steele punched in a number and the screen shifted to a classic movies channel. In an old black and white movie three bumbling repairmen were bashing each other with hammers.
Murphy grinned with schoolboyish delight. “Hey, The Three Stooges are on!”
Steele squinted at the title caption. “‘Half-Wits Holiday.’ How apropos.”
“Curly’s last film. It’s historic.”
“Pre-historic, more like. This is what comedy must have been like in the cavemen days. I confess I’ve never been a fan of their antics.”
“A wise guy, eh?” He snatched the remote out of Steele’s lap.
“Give me that!”
They struggled for the remote, Murphy emerging the victor. He klonked Steele on the head with it.
“That hoits. Hurts!” cried Steele, having slipped into the lingo in spite of himself.
“I think the patient’s out of it.” He pressed a finger to Steele’s forehead. “Cotton,” he said, barking orders in the time-honored Stooges’ manner when performing surgery.
Steele slapped the hand away. “Will you cut that out!” He slumped, disconsolate, elbows on knees. “This is going to be a very long evening. Do you have something stronger than beer?”
“I think I can scare up a bottle of tequila.”
Two hours later, they were still sitting on the couch, Stooges sound effects running in the background. Despite that encouragement Murphy hadn’t whacked Steele on the head again, but it was getting to be a strong possibility.
Steele held a pad and pencil in his lap. “Sorry, mate. The numbers are unassailable. I won the first round on points.”
Murphy grinned like Bogart before slapping down a gunsel. “I think the booze has gone to your head.”
Steele sprang up and, with a grace that belied his state of inebriation, executed a perfect handstand. “Now it has,” he said, cheerfully upside down. He walked back and forth on his hands before touching his feet nimbly back to earth and returning to the sofa. “That was a good one, wasn’t it?”
“Drunk and silly is no way to go through life, son,” he intoned with mock gravity, mangling a movie quote.
This was too much and they rolled around drinking and laughing until Murphy had snorted half a glass of tequila up his nose.
“Where were we?” asked Steele, looking around in happy confusion.
“The end of round one, I think.” He recovered, holding his aching ribs. “I never thought you’d invite those hits to the body like that. Were you trying to let me win?”
Steele frowned as if vexed with himself. “Nothing like that. It was pure contrarianism. I wanted to see if I could take you on your strength rather than your weakness.”
“I hate to say it but you were close. Not close enough to win if you hadn’t sidetracked me, but pretty close.”
Steele gazed up at the ceiling. “I wonder. What is it that drives us both into such knuckle dragging displays of masculinity?”
Murphy smiled. “I think we could sum that up in one word.”
“Well, then.” Steele held up his tumbler of tequila. “A toast. To a woman worth fighting for. Laura.”
“Laura.” They clinked their glasses together.
Morning light spilled in from the window blinds as Murphy carefully opened one eye. He resolved never to open it again. The hangover to cure all hangovers was launching a ground assault on the beachhead of his senses. With a groan he got out of bed and shuffled to the living room.
He did a double take at his unexpected guest before his pounding head and aching ribs reminded him of the day and night before. Steele, sitting half upright, was on the couch. Literally hung over, he blinked at the floor in that painful Morse code that said he was a fellow sufferer.
“Bugger,” Steele mumbled, squinting at the empty bottle on the coffee table. “The last time I drank this much tequila,” he said to the room, “I woke up naked under a big black sombrero.” He hadn’t made it that far, Murphy noted with relief, but some time during his sleepover he had stripped down to his boxers.
“What are you doing here, Murphy?” Steele’s brows knit together in confusion. ”What time is it?”
“Good question.” Murphy stared down at his wrist. “Where the hell is my watch?”
“Don’t panic. I’ve got this one.” Steele held his right wrist up to his swaying vision. “The big hand is just past the twelve and the little hand is on the, um –“
Murphy craned his neck at the watch face. “The little hand is on the eight.” The sight struck him suddenly blue in the face. “The eight! We’ve got less than an hour to get to the airport!”
Steele slapped his forehead. “Your flight!” He struggled up to his feet. “Brilliant timing, mate. I thought Fred would give you an alarm call.”
“He’s driving Laura and Bernice!”
“Right. I forgot. The Rabbit is still in for repairs.”
“Get dressed! I have to call a cab!”
Steele leaned down and sniffed. “But I’ve got to shower.”
With an effort, Steele began picking up discarded clothing: shoes, socks, trousers, shirt.
Murphy sprinted for the phone in his pajama bottoms.
“Well at least let me brush my teeth. My mouth feels like there’s a wino living in it.”
“Use the yellow toothbrush. It’s Sherry’s.”
Like the chessboard, it was fated to be left behind. Murphy punched in the number for the cab company. His only shot at making the airport in time would be a hefty tip for the driver, probably no less than a fifty. As he strode down the hall past the bathroom door he heard water running and Steele’s familiar clipped tones.
“Dental hygiene really isn’t your strong suit, Murphy. You’ve left the cap off the toothpaste.”
“Bitch, bitch, bitch.”
Twenty minutes later they were both presentable, if one didn’t look too close or get upwind.
Murphy glanced around. The flurry of last minute packing had been almost as dizzying as his hangover. “Have I got everything? Tickets, check. Luggage, check. Wallet, keys --”
Steele rubbed his neck. “Did I really spend four hours watching a Three Stooges marathon?”
Despite the hectic pace of the morning, Murphy couldn’t resist rubbing it in. “Soitenly!” he replied, with perfect Stooge inflection.
Steele winced. “So much for my membership in the Francois Truffaut Society.”
“Aw, don’t sweat it. The French like Jerry Lewis.”
“Yes, well, one aberration at a time. Perhaps Larry, Moe, and Curly will be in fashion by spring.”
Murphy peered out the window. “Cab’s here. Hey, have you got a fifty?”
After making baggage check by the slightest of margins, Steele and Murphy barreled through the terminal to the departure gate.
“There you are, Laura! Miss Wolf!” called Steele.
“Nice of you two to show up,” cracked Bernice.
Laura chided them both indulgently, hands on hips. “I thought we were going to have send out a search party. Thank heaven the flight was delayed thirty minutes or you’d be standing on the empty tarmac.”
“I’m teaching Murphy to be fashionably late.”
Laura’s eyes suddenly widened. “Speaking of fashion, did you two exchange closets? You’re wearing plaid.”
Steele gaped as if she’d lost her senses. “You’re joking.”
“No. And Murphy’s wearing a black turtleneck sweater.”
He looked at Steele and Steele looked at him, disbelief spreading slowly over their features. Neither of them had even noticed the switch, in the mad rush to get dressed. He didn’t want to explain it, even if he could. Think of something, quick, he felt like shouting at Steele, but the silence stretched like a big rubber band.
Steele coughed. “I made a bar bet with Murphy. I lost.”
“It must have been a doozy,” Laura said drily.
“I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“It was yesterday,” Murphy prompted.
“There was this leggy red head sitting at the bar, immensely out of his league, and I bet Murphy he couldn’t blag her phone number.”
“Whoa, love ‘em and leave ‘em Murphy!” Bernice marveled, with something between admiration and disgust. “Usually when a guy has his fun he waits at least a couple of weeks before packing his bags. You’re already halfway to Denver.”
“It wasn’t like that,” he protested, hating to seem like a heel. “Uh, the girl was being really nice. She knew it was just a dare.”
“Don’t be modest, Murphy.” Steele clapped him on the back. “Who would have guessed your knowledge of batting averages was such a turn on?”
“Batting averages?” Laura raised an eyebrow. “What kind of a bar was this?”
“That new sports bar on Wilshire. ‘The Strike Zone,” he said quickly. He’d been there once so he felt safe in knowing the general description.
“Real authentic baseball Americana,” Steele chimed in. “Sawdust on the floor, a spittoon in every corner.”
He shot him a look of warning. It wasn’t that way at all. More like a chain restaurant, with overpriced drinks and food.
“I’d pay big money to see Skeeziks in a place like that.”
“You’re on, Miss Wolf. It’s a date. We’ll haggle over the price later.”
Murphy rolled his eyes. Steele would seize any chance to annoy her and get some free cash besides.
“Redheads, sports bars. Just what have you two been up to lately?” Laura took a good look at them, and a healthy sniff. “You smell like you spent the night on the floor.”
Bernice risked moving in for a closer inspection. “You don’t look so good, either. Like a couple of bruised melons in the supermarket. Did someone bust a spittoon over your heads?”
“Perish the thought,” said Steele. “Though we did have to clear out the riffraff.”
Murphy took the hint. “There were these frat boys from USC, you see –“
“A load of tossers, by the look of them.”
“Trojans. Same thing. They were drunk as skunks –“
“Hardly surprising,” sniffed Laura.
Maybe he’d spent too much time around Steele, but he began to warm to the subject as if he were a born liar. “After the last round of beer pong, one of them got up on the table and yelled that the Stanford football team was a bunch of geeks and freaks who weren’t fit to sniff USC’s jock straps.”
Laura made a face. “As if anyone in their right mind would.”
“Quite,” agreed Steele. “They all cheered him on like barbarians. We couldn’t let that insult stand to the old school tie.”
“I hope you murdered the bums,” said Laura, matter-of-fact, as if that was the standard procedure.
“The USC colors were a red and gold smear on the sidewalk when we got through with them!”
Laura reached up and gave Murphy a high five. He grinned. They were home free now, baby, and no one suspected a thing.
“Damn,” Laura sighed. “Who’s going to go with me to football games now that you’re leaving, Murph?”
The old tradition tugged at his emotions. “I don’t know. But after last night, I think Steele’s an honorary Cardinal.” Maybe the man he’d always thought of as his rival would take the handoff now. But that didn’t seem like such a bad thing any more.
Laura patted Steele’s arm. “I guess he is. Even if doesn’t know the difference between a slot formation and a slot machine.”
“Well, don’t let him learn things too fast. That would take all the fun out of it.”
Laura laughed. “Don’t worry, Murphy. I won’t.”
Steele tapped his shoulder. “Just one more thing. Before you go can I have my sweater back?”
“I’ll mail it to you. I’ll be getting new threads anyway,” he winked.
Steele plucked at his plaid shirt sleeve. “Well then you don’t mind if I give this rag to charity.”
“Knock yourself out.”
Laura’s eyes narrowed. “Did something happen between you two? Something I don’t know about?”
“What makes you say that?” asked Steele, in his most determinedly offhand manner.
Laura stepped back and studied the both of them, then turned to Steele with a look of infinite puzzlement. “This is going to sound really strange. Maybe it’s the clothes, but I’m not sure if he’s rubbing off on you or you’re rubbing off on him.”
“Let’s hope it’s the latter, eh?”
Murphy looked up at the board as the departure was announced. “Well, that’s my flight.” He lifted his carryon bag.
Steele stepped forward and Murphy shook his extended hand. “Well, what can I say, mate? Enjoy being a flashy front man.”
“I think I just might.” The Steele he’d encountered in the early days would never stick around for goodbyes, and would have taken a certain pleasure in reminding him of that cold, hard fact. But the facts were still a work in progress where Remington Steele was concerned. And maybe the both of them had always known they would be. “Have fun playing detective.”
“I expect I’ll muddle through.” Steele turned to Laura. “Remind me, Miss Holt. What time do we open for business in the morning?”
Murphy laughed as she punched Steele’s arm. “Don’t let him go on stakeouts. You know how bored he gets.” He shot Steele a sly look of triumph.
“Bye, big guy.” Bernice kissed his cheek, leaving behind a moue of red lipstick. “Denver doesn’t deserve you, you know. I hope you get lucky. Find another red head.”
Blushing a little, he wiped the lipstick off with the back of his hand. “Yeah, in the same area code this time.”
The farewells felt a little awkward. As if their hearts were full of words, but there was too much to be said. They would always prefer the office shorthand, light and bantering on the surface, but with room for each other to read between the lines.
“So long, Murph.” Laura hugged him hard and his arms closed around her waist. He felt the rise and fall of her breath, then it hitched a little and she held him tighter, her soft hair pressed against his cheek. When she let him go her eyes were wet, but her gaze was as warm as summer. “I hope you get lucky, too.” He knew she meant it in every possible way.
“So long, partner.” The last word he spoke to her was simple, but it had meant so much that he couldn’t think of how to say more. He stood and waved, looking back at all their faces for one last time.
Steele’s eyes caught his and they shone with confidence. “Be bold, mate.”
He started walking and the faces began to fade, like a snapshot in an old album, but Steele’s salutation lingered, like a kind of blessing. He didn’t know what the future would bring, but as he turned down the ramp his steps felt lighter than they had in weeks.
[ Steele A State Of Mind ]