Thursday, 4 p.m.
I get in before Marita, head straight to the apartment--piso, they call it--rummage for the first few minutes among the things in the fridge, which Marita's had someone stock, and then hit the sack. At least the bed here is comfortable. I fall asleep almost immediately and wake up again around 10 p.m., a warm breeze rippling the thin curtains in the window. It feels good.
From the closed bedroom door and a couple of bags left on the sofa, I can see that Marita's arrived. My guess is that she's out just like I've been, trying to sleep off the flight. And I'm not about to wake her. Anyway, the air is warmer than I'd realized at first; the pool outside is sounding pretty good, and the last thing I need is an audience. I go outside, wave my hand through the water: nice. Back in the room I dig out a pair of swim trunks, then think about how I'll cover up if I need to. Shirt? That would look stupid in this weather. Towel over the shoulder? Maybe if it's big enough. I go hunting in the bathroom closet; sure enough, there are big towels. I take one and head outside.
I'm not going to be able to swim like I used to, but at this point I'm just looking to sit in the water, cool off, relax and maybe float a little--if I can manage it. I drop the towel within reach of the edge and go down three steps, then four, and I've hit bottom. The water's just right--no shock of cold but not warm enough to pretend to be something that belongs in a bathtub. I crouch down, let my arm rise and feel myself begin to drift a little. After a moment I stand up, walk slowly to the far side, then down toward the deep end until I'm chest-high in the water. No sense doing anything stupid, though, like hitting the deep end, so I cross the pool, take hold of a rope loop where it fastens into a thick chrome hook and let my legs float up and drift. It feels good, actually. After a few seconds I stretch out, tip my head back and look up into the dark sky overhead.
Fourteen hours. After all these months, only fourteen more hours until we meet Arizábal at FarmaCol and see the first of the vaccine, the dream finally become reality. I picture the building and then tuck the image away in a back corner of my head. No point in dwelling on it, keeping yourself awake like a kid on Christmas Eve. It's not that late--not for a place with hot weather and late night life--and I can hear cars and buses four floors down, and random bits of conversation drifting up from patios below, or from the building across from us.
After a couple of minutes a light goes on inside. I fight down a mild jolt of panic and watch as Marita crosses the kitchen, wrapped in some sort of thin robe. She takes a bottle of water from the refrigerator and the light goes out again. If she stops to look out here, I won't be able to tell. She knows about the arm now, but knowing about it and actually coming to terms with the sight of it are two different things. I tell myself to stay where I am, keep floating, not look like I'm trying to escape in case she does come out.
But the door doesn't open, and eventually I pull up, make my way to the stairs and sit there for a while watching the patterns in the water, surprised to find that my head isn't full of random bits of strategy and details that need taking care of. The past week on that island must have done me more good than I realized. I need to remember that the next time I find myself going crazy.
Finally I slip back into the water. I stretch out, right side down, and make my way across the width of the pool in a passable attempt at a sidestroke. After all, I may need it someday and there's no use waiting until some critical moment to find out what my capabilities are.
After a few more passes across the pool I get out, towel off and go back to bed. When I wake up again there's sun shining in the window, it's hot and the nervous backbeat that was missing the night before starts up in my gut. Two hours and counting.
The meeting goes by in a kind of blur. Arizábal is a little shorter than me, balding, a conservative dresser with good taste in suits. He's also thorough and precise. Once again, Marita's picked the right man for the job. We see the boxes; he opens one for us and notes that the labels on the vials are easily peeled off, evidently one of Marita's requirements, though Arizábal probably has no idea why. It's good strategy. If we need to change our story for any batch--bill it as something different--this will make it easy.
At the end we spend a few minutes in Arizábal's office. He and Marita settle into Spanish while my thoughts drift to the vials--what it felt like the first time I held one, the tension of getting it out of the camp, knowing what Lev could do to me if I were caught with it. Andrei's help, not just with the vaccine but the way he'd been there to prod me after I lost the arm, how he'd drag me out on walks and the way he weaned me off the sleeping pills I could've dead-ended on. At the time, the idea that without the arm I might be able to do anything to counter the alien threat was beyond comprehending. And yet here I am. There's a lesson in it.
They're standing now, so I get up, too. Thanks all around, hands offered, and I add my own 'gracias'.
Arizábal's called us a cab, and Marita and I stand outside in the front patio waiting for it, wound up like anything, both of us trying not to show it.
"Well," she says finally, but no more words follow, just a gradually growing glow like nothing I've seen on her before.
"Two days." I shrug, trying to sound casual. Take that, you conniving old fuckers in the board room.
Marita's wearing a flowered dress--nothing loud, but a real switch for her. It's sleeveless and shows off a lot of pale arm. There are muscles there, too--subtle, but you can follow the outline. I watch the steady beat of the pulse in her neck.
"Are you hungry?" she says just as the cab pulls up.
I feel my face flush. "What?"
"I'm starving," she says, opening the door. "What about you?"
I go around to the other side. "Yeah, but--"
"I know this little place," she says, a gleam in her eye, and her head slips below the roof of the car.
I open my door and get in.
"Secluded," she says, answering the concern she knows I'll have about security. "Not the type of place where anyone who was looking would see us."
I shrug an 'okay' and Marita gives the driver directions. We leave the university area and gradually drive into an older, colonial-looking section of the city with narrow cobblestone streets.
She's right about the secluded part; they seat us at a private table in a little alcove around the corner from the main dining room.
"You know I have no clue what's on this menu," I say after giving it a good glance.
"Then I guess you're at my mercy." The delivery is dry, but there's that spark of something in her eye again. Maybe just life; she's obviously having a hard time staying inside that buttoned-up persona she usually wears. "What do you want, Alex?"
"Something to fill me up. Meat or fish and whatever comes with it." I shrug.
"Okay." The corners of her mouth curl just a little and I can't figure out whether it's a 'cat ate the bird' smile or just the fact of the FarmaCol meeting being past.
Wine comes, and some kind of appetizer, potato slices in a yellowy sauce, the whole thing decorated with hard-boiled eggs. I take a few sips from my glass, look around, finally bring my focus back to the table and notice that Marita's been doing the same. I can't shake the buzz from what we've just seen: thousands of vials of real vaccine. Not a dream anymore, but reality.
"Hell, this is like the elephant in the middle of the room," I say, shaking my head. "Like you want to, you know, shout it to the rooftops but you can't."
"I know," she says. She flashes a hundred-watt smile at the end and then abruptly shuts it off and colors. Funny how things slip out like that after some tight situation has peaked and you're on the downhill side.
I am hungry; it hits me now and I dig into the stuff on the plate in front of us. There's a single olive decorating the dish and Marita quickly spears it. Her face has softened, a little bit of another Marita peeking through that she hasn't let me see before. I wonder how many there are.
"Hungry for a taste of home?" I say, hoping it might be a lead-in to more about her past. We are, after all, in a Peruvian restaurant.
She nods, mouth half full.
"Guess it's been a while, from what Miguel said. You went to New York when?"
"1984," she says when she can pause. "I was fifteen."
I shake my head. Must have been a bitch for someone who figured she had her whole life ahead of her. "And before that?"
"We had property outside the capital," she says, swallowing the last of what's in her mouth. "My grandfather raised horses. I was a child: I went to school, learned to ride, played with friends. I led a normal life. Did homework, fed chickens--"
I almost laugh, but manage to cough it down. Marita's looking past me. The expression on her face says it was a good childhood.
"And you?" she says.
Should have seen it coming.
I shrug. "Not much to tell. Russia: long winters, snow, freezing wind. Short summers. Not exactly the life of luxury. Someplace tropical like this"--I gesture around me--"I never would have believed anything like this existed." Maybe I can steer this off in another direction.
I let out a sigh, fiddle with the napkin beside my plate and shake my head. I could make up some couple--a mother who was a doctor, a research scientist father--or the cold war immigrants I'd given Mulder--but why bother? I'm going to be in this thing long-term and there's no point in getting caught in my story somewhere further down the line.
"No parents," I say, and shrug.
She seems a little taken aback by that, but just as she's about to say something else, our food arrives. She's ordered me some kind of beef dish, and luckily the pieces are small enough to be manageable without a knife. The conversation dies while we focus on eating.
By the end of the meal we're both full, and both tired and hot, too; unlike yesterday, when things were more than bearable, today the thermometer's just kept climbing. Marita calls a cab and we head back to the apartment. She says she's going to try to catch up on her sleep, and I intend to do the same. That is, just as soon as I can get the harness off and clean up the stump. Unfortunately, I've found out a little bit about what sweat in the socket can lead to. Luckily, things didn't get very far before I got it taken care of, but who would have figured skin health could be such a big deal?
When I wake up it's nearly 7 p.m. and almost completely dark. Still hot. The humidity's been a bitch today and it's still close to 80 degrees. Which is probably why the swimming pool's calling me again. I get up and head for the bathroom, wondering if my swim trunks have dried from last night, but a glance outside tells me the pool is already occupied. I push out a hard breath. Marita's swimming lazy laps against the turquoise-lit water.
For a while I stand at the window, watching, but she doesn't notice me. Sweat beads on my forehead and starts to trickle down my temples. The apartment's air conditioning unit is broken--just our luck--so if I stay here, I'm going to slowly cook, which doesn't sound like much of a way to spend the next dozen hours. Anyway, Marita shouldn't have the only access to keeping cool.
Easier said than acted on, though. I have no desire to play freak show, and getting used to the stump requires a lot of staring; it did even for me. Awkward as it's likely to be, though, it will probably have to happen sometime. Maybe better just to go out there and get it over with. Unless I want to stay here and melt into a puddle, that is.
A knot settles low in my gut, but I go into the bathroom, get changed, grab my towel. Take a deep breath--okay, more than one--and head outside. I tell myself it's a preemptive strike, good strategy. If she gives me any grief, or any maudlin sympathy, though, there's no telling how this will go.
Marita's just made a turn at the shallow end and is headed back toward the deep end, so I'm able to make it down the first three stairs and sit before she catches sight of me. She bursts up from underwater, her eyes widening suddenly.
"You scared me," she says, and lets out a deep breath.
I shrug. My heart's banging like a drum.
"Did you sleep?" She shakes her head, and wet hair and drops of water go flying.
"Yeah, until I woke up in a pool of sweat." The water's up to my chest, so the edge of the stump is just below the surface. Which means I can look somewhere near normal. For the moment, anyway.
"The air conditioner's being repaired," she says, coming closer. "There was a misunderstanding about the date we were arriving, which is why it's out now. I'm sorry." A momentary pause. "I imagine the heat must be uncomfortable for your... ar--"
"Stump," she repeats after a moment's hesitation. Her jaw clenches a little around the word.
And I lift it slightly, so it's out of the water, wondering why the hell I'm exposing it, but knowing, somewhere in the back of my mind, that it has to be better to just have the confrontation and get past it. If it's going to be possible to get past something that holds your attention the way this does.
It's obvious Marita wants to turn away, either because it bothers her or because she doesn't want to be caught gawking, but she makes herself keep looking until she's really seen it.
Time's starting to tick away awkwardly. I ease the stump back into the water but don't look away; I'm not going to be the first one to blink.
"I'm sorry," she says, her tone quiet, not the challenging way she has of addressing you. "And since I realize I have no way of knowing what this has put you through, I won't try to say anything... trite, or convenient."
Now it's me who's caught off-guard. "Thanks." I let out a breath and look up into the darkening sky, where half a fuzzy, cloud-covered moon hangs overhead, and then down again. I run my hand back through my hair. "Some party, eh?"
"A private party," she says. "Inside a prison of our own choosing. We did choose this."
"Not that there was much real choice." I raise an eyebrow, then nod toward the deep end. "You swim much?"
"I like to. But over the last few weeks--" She lets out a little sigh. "There's been no time, really."
"Take advantage," I say. "While you can. I went away for a week. Did me good. Just the sea shore, a cabin, trees. Quiet."
I can see her wanting to ask where, but she doesn't. Instead she turns and swims off, starting her lap again. I watch her in her one-piece suit, white and simple but it shows her off well. She wanted to be an art dealer. I shake my head.
Eventually I go down the last couple of steps, walk down a few feet, then dip under to wash the sweat off my face. The cool water feels really good. Over to the side, Marita swims by, long legs kicking.
I make my way to the rope loop, get a good grip on it and let myself drift. Experimenting a little, I discover that if I cross the good arm over the other shoulder, I can balance out my weight and float as upright as anybody.
For a while we ignore each other and each do our own thing. Until I notice that the sound of splashing water has stopped. I glance over to see Marita by the far side of the pool, straining to look at something behind her left shoulder.
"I think something bit me."
"A bug, I think."
And she wades over to the stairs, gets out, rubs a towel over herself and goes inside. A few seconds later the light in her bathroom goes on.
She's a damn good-looking woman, as Junior downstairs has woken up to tell me in case I'd somehow missed the fact. I remind myself of The Piranha--Maria Ivanova--in an attempt to get things back to normal. Marita's more leopard than piranha; she's got the bite, but she's more than just a set of teeth. Besides, Marita's not out trolling for a boy toy the way Ivanova was. Hell, her gut reaction would probably be to push anyone away. Wonder what it would take to make that smile she usually hides so well break through the armor she wears. Or make her want to throw the armor off.
The image that comes doesn't help things, though, so I look up, to where the half-moon glows behind a thin layer of cloud cover. Two weeks. Two weeks until the next big scam, with all the things that could go wrong trying to get a large number of people to accept The Flu Shot That Isn't. I just hope they've been able to do something about the after-effects of the injection itself, because at least when I got mine, it hurt like hell for way too long; that in itself could expose us in pretty short order. A low thrum of tension starts up in my gut.
My head is full enough that I don't hear Marita coming outside again. I'm surprised when I glance up and see her sitting on the chaise lounge. She's reaching back, trying to touch the spot, but she stops when she notices me watching.
"What was it?" I say.
"An insect bite, apparently."
"More annoyance than actual pain," she says.
"They have dangerous bugs around here?"
"You mean the kinds that carry neurotoxins or cause necrosis?"
Where your flesh rots away. My expression must give me away because she flashes her trademark sardonic smile.
"Not in urban areas like this, Alex. In the jungle, though..."
Remind me to stay out of the jungle. At least a good old-fashioned Russian winter is cold enough to kill off anything like that.
I let myself submerge again to cool off, decide to try swimming under the surface to see how that goes. I push off one wall, do a few strokes that manage to get me to the opposite side and come up sputtering for air. Not great. But then I'm out of shape. Seemed more efficient than on the surface, if I could just get the breathing part right.
When I look again, Marita's rubbing her shoulder.
"Maybe I should take a look at it," I say.
The softness in her voice takes me by surprise. She comes to the edge of the pool and down the stairs.
"Come here. Turn around."
There's a little welt on her shoulder blade. I touch it and she winces. But it's too dark to really see what's going on.
"We should go inside," I say. "Where there's light."
We get out, towel off, go inside and into her bathroom. There's a small mirror over the sink but she stands away from it. Little bottles and jars cluster on the counter--make-up and lotions, the kind of stuff women keep with them. And a little round plastic case, like the face of a travel alarm. Takes a minute before it dawns on me what it is.
"Turn," I say. So she's got somebody. "There's a little swelling--" I look closer. Or who knows; maybe she just likes to stay on the safe side. A few drops of water fall from her hair and slide past my fingers into the top of her suit. "Looks like there might be something in there. In the middle." I straighten. "Maybe you should have this checked out."
She turns her head to look at me, concerned.
"Hey, relax." The tension in her shoulders is obvious. I set my hand over her right shoulder, smoothing my thumb along the side of her neck. Marita bristles--or is that a shiver?--and gives me a look. "Relax," I say. "You're all knotted up. You said yourself how important it is to stay healthy." I can't do the same thing on the other side, but I do what I can manage. She seems to loosen, though I can't say the same for myself. "There's bound to be a hospital around, or someplace you can have it checked out. How well do you know this town?"
"Well enough," she says, and pauses. "You can stop now."
I let go and take a step back.
"There's a hospital two kilometers away," she says, then turns and looks up. "Will you go with me?"
Yet another surprise. "Uh, yeah. Sure."
It's past eight as the cab winds its way through the city, taking us to the hospital. Friday night and the streets are full of people, lit signs glowing above restaurants and the beat of music pouring out through the open doors of discos. I glance over at Marita, colors from the lights and signs passing across her face.
"You okay?" I ask. She looks worried, or... smaller somehow, not as formidable as the hard-edged woman who's drilled me on the intricacies of a Plan that aims to save the species from extinction.
She nods, but looks away, out the window again.
At the hospital I let myself blend into the background after they take Marita off to an examining room. The little bit of Spanish I picked up years ago has faded away for the most part, but I listen to the people around me, picking out a few familiar words here and there.
About twenty minutes later she comes back. Turns out she was stung by something. They've taken out the stinger, cleaned the wound; she's fine, ready to go. Still, there's something quiet and subdued about her, the usual sharp edges missing. Which isn't like her. We ride back to the apartment without speaking.
Who knows what's on her mind, but she doesn't seem inclined to share. It's early, barely 9:30, but she decides to turn in. I shower and hit the sack again, too, and lie there thinking about the island I was on a week ago, so quiet and peaceful, the world with its nightmare future locked away beyond the foggy haze that sits offshore.
Eventually I fall asleep, but I wake up again about 2 a.m. The room's too hot. I leave the door wide open to get a cross draft going and head outside, where I stretch out on the chaise lounge. It's cooled off a little and there's a slight breeze that seems to be picking up, which comes as a relief.
What if it had been something poisonous that bit her? She's mentioned that before--something crazy happening out of the blue that could end up interfering with our work on this plan. The thing is, she could keep going if I were sidelined, but the same's not true in reverse: without her, this whole operation would be history.
I swallow, glance over toward the inside in time to see her coming through the door. She's got that thin robe on again.
"Slept enough?" I say. "Or is it just too hot in your room?"
"A little of each," she says, coming closer. She sits down in the chair next to mine.
"It's getting cooler, at least." I look up overhead to where gray clouds are doing a forced march across the sky. "Smells like it might rain."
"Yes." After a beat she looks skyward, too, showing off a fine curve of smooth, white neck.
I rub my thumb along the armrest under my hand. "Guess I never give much thought to how... separate we are from the rest of the world," I say. "But last night, you know, on the way to the hospital... It was like being inside a bottle, watching the world go by." I pull up a little. "You ever think about that?"
She raises an eyebrow, as if she's surprised I'm capable of higher thought. Her expression softens. "Sometimes. No one else could understand what this is like."
For a long time we sit there without saying anything.
Eventually the silence starts to eat at me. "So tell me about art," I say. "Miguel said you wanted to be an art dealer."
She shrugs. "There are beautiful things out there. Interesting things. Ways of interpreting the world." She pauses and I wait for that trademark 'ah' that marks her formal self, but it doesn't come. "But I knew I'd need to make a living, too. I wasn't going to be dependent on someone else the way my mother always has been."
"She and your dad split?"
"They were too different. He was an idealist; he'd feed every beggar who knocked on our back door."
"And your mom?"
"She knew what she wanted. Knows. But the only way she sees to get it is through men. They're her passport."
"And you want your own."
"Don't you?" Marita crosses one long leg over the other.
"Hell, yeah." I pause. "So you decided to sell art instead of just look at it, or collect it."
"You ever miss having that chance?"
"What good would it have done to do that instead of this?"
I shrug. "Point taken." I try not to concentrate too hard on all that leg showing between the folds of her robe.
"Your turn," she says. "What kind of plans did you have?" And she sounds like she might actually be interested.
I glance over at her; it's obvious she's not going to let me off the hook this time. I let out a long breath.
"The truth, Alex," she says, drilling me with the one eye I can see from here. "Without a foundation of trust this isn't going to work. What would you think if you found out I'd lied about any of what I've told you?" An eyebrow goes up. "From what I know about Russian orphanages, boys who grow up in them don't end up where you are. Not even by chance."
"It wasn't an orphanage," I say. "Okay, it was an institution, but not as bad as that." I stop to take a breath. "Not exactly, anyway."
"So what was it like?" She sits up, uncrosses her legs and crosses them the other way.
"It was a place for... for inconvenient kids, embarrassments--ones who would get in the way of careers, or alliances." I can feel my mouth tighten. Damn if I want to get into this.
"And you got there how?"
I let my head drop against the back of the chaise and look up into the lightening sky. My hand curls tight. "Like everybody else. I was an inconvenience."
She could push me further but she waits. Something knots inside me. I can't bring myself to say it, and anyway, what business is it of hers? She wasn't a mistake--trash--or a convenient mule to help carry someone else to their chosen destination. I picture the kids I grew up with: ragged, skinny, hungry for something they couldn't put a name to.
"His--Spender's." The words burst out of me almost before I realize they're there. "Not a party boss's or some colonel's." I sniff back the moisture in my nose. "He took me there as an infant." And I'm out of the chair and on my way inside, leaving the door half-open.
I pace through the living room, then go down the hall to the bathroom, take a piss and go back to my room. I loop around the end of the bed, sit down on the edge facing the window and let my head drop into my hand. Nice show, Aleksei. Real smooth.
After a few seconds my brain catches up and Marita's reaction to my little revelation filters in: shocked horror. Who knows where this will leave us. I get up, reach for the bottle that's been sitting on the dresser since I arrived and down a couple of swigs, then a third for good measure, and set it back on the dresser top. Or at least I mean to, but it falls over and spills. Swearing, I snatch it up, grab yesterday's T-shirt off the floor, swipe it across the wood and then stomp it against the carpet to soak up what's gone over the edge.
Then I sprawl out on the bed, wishing the world would go away. The house is completely quiet and eventually I drift toward fitful sleep.
But I wake up after an hour or so, thirsty as hell. The light's still on in the living room, which strikes me as odd given that it's four in the morning.
Tossing off the sheet that's over me, I take a minute to let myself cool off, focus on fine-tuning my ears and eyes. What a fucking stupid thing--taking off like that.
I stand up, take a deep breath, start down the hallway to the kitchen... and find Marita on the couch, head back against the cushions, a washcloth across her forehead. The robe's been swapped for shorts and a sleeveless top with tiny blue flowers on them--lounging stuff, I guess.
I stand there for a few seconds. Finally clear my throat. "You okay?"
"Hot," she says.
"There's the pool." I nod toward the patio.
She shakes her head. "I've been thinking."
"What you said."
She sits up and turns toward me now. "What if allying with him for some reason made sense?"
"What would you do?"
I frown. "Anything but."
"What the-- Why the hell would you even ask that? Because he's poison, Marita."
"He's your father, Alex."
"What, and I'm going to have some kind of inbred loyalty toward the pathetic fucker who dumped me in that hellhole, figuring it'd help toughen me up if I happened to survive?" I pause and push out a breath. "What kind of loyalty would you feel?"
Her mouth opens; frown lines ridge her forehead. Finally she shakes her head. There's nothing adversarial in her look now. Maybe something more like sympathy. "I have no point of reference for that."
"Then you're lucky," I say, my voice quieter than I expected it would be. How could she have any idea, with the kind of father she had? After a couple of beats I turn and start for the kitchen. "You want water or something?"
"Yes. Thank you."
I grab two bottles and go back to the couch. When I hand her one, she rolls it across her forehead. I'm not used to seeing her with her hair smoothed flat, like for once she's not ready for a photo shoot. And those legs go on forever.
"So how's the wound?"
"It seems alright." She twists the cap off her bottle of water and takes a drink.
"You sure you're okay?" I say, and sit down. She looks tired. "Transparency, remember? That 'foundation of trust' you were all for earlier."
"I have a mild headache."
"Maybe from something they gave you?"
Or it could be from the little bomb I dropped, from worrying if it would change anything--whether I might be tempted to spill the secret of her hard-won vaccine program to Daddy Dearest; maybe that's where she's headed with this. The thought of handing the old man anything makes me knot up inside.
"If he were the last man on this whole fucking planet, I wouldn't go to him," I say. "Just for the record."
Marita looks pained--for me, as far as I can tell. Then she eases herself back against the cushions and pauses. Her expression changes. "In the interest of openness..."
I raise one eyebrow.
"There's still a risk from the bite, from what they say."
"What kind of risk?"
"A possibility of"--her nose wrinkles in distaste--"eggs in the wound." Her lips press together briefly. "An off-chance, but still."
"So, what exactly does that mean?"
Marita's mouth tightens, but she forces it to relax. She's trying for her usual in-control delivery but she looks a little pale, to tell the truth. "They asked if there were flowers in the area, and if I'd noticed any flies afterwards--if I'd brushed any off the wound."
"Not that I recall. But there are five big pots of flowers out there. Evidently screwworm flies have been active in this area recently. They're attracted to flowers. And open wounds."
I swallow. "So they're talking about this fly laying eggs in the wound after the fact."
Which means maggots, and other things I don't want to begin to picture--especially not on a fine specimen of womanhood like Marita.
"If the wound is clearly healing by morning rather than getting worse, then it should be fine."
I lean back against the cushions and close my eyes briefly. Shit. Here it is: one of those unforeseen possibilities that could leave Marita incapacitated, or worse, and threaten this whole program.
"They did say it was an outside chance," she adds.
I glance over at her--she's staring into nothing--but in spite of her words, she looks worried. Or maybe just drained. Without thinking I reach out, cover her hand with mine and brush my thumb across her knuckles. Then, realizing what I've done, I move it away as smoothly as I can and sit up, my heart suddenly beating a little too fast.
"I should sleep," she says, turning her head toward me but not giving away any reaction to what I just did. "If I could just stop thinking. That place you went to get away--would you mind describing it?"
Didn't see that coming. I shrug. "Blue sea," I start, clearing my throat. Marita closes her eyes. "Silver, when the sun shines on it. One line after another of mountains on the horizon, each paler than the next, and just this little place coming closer, rising out of the water." My eyes scan her lips, her cheekbones, the way that pale blonde hair drapes to one side, exposing her neck and collarbone. "Woods down to the shoreline in some places; little cabins tucked away here and there. Deer." I think about taking her hand again, but decide I'd better play it safe. "A bay where orcas breech." Settling back against the cushions, I look up at the ceiling and picture myself there. "Good fishing. Quiet."
Eventually I come awake to my name being called. Dull light's coming in the window of my room, along with the sounds and smells of rain.
I blink and turn to see Marita standing in the half-open doorway.
She takes a few steps forward. "Would you check this?" Her voice is soft. Her robe sits off one shoulder. "I can't see it clearly enough myself."
The bite. Tension starts to hum inside me.
I stretch and work to blink the dryness out of my eyes. I'm a lot groggier than I realized. I glance up. Marita's hair is messy, but in a nice sort of way; she's got this soft-around-the-edges look.
"Around," I say, motioning for her to come around to the other side of the bed. "Can't help you on this side." And I lift the stump to prove it.
She comes around and sits carefully on the edge of the mattress, and I pull up to a sitting position behind her. Like a window shade in reverse, the robe is slowly let down to her waist. Underneath it she's wearing a thin, soft pink undershirt with a little lace border around the neck edge. I swallow. Am I supposed to...? But she's waiting, so I take a finger and carefully pull the armhole edge of the shirt aside. Parts of me are waking up fast, and I wonder how much of her request is practicality, how much may be something else.
"Looks... seems okay. Like it's starting to heal over," I say, squinting at the place to make sure I'm not missing anything. "Kind of a reddish pink, but nothing that looks like it's getting worse."
She sighs--deep sigh--and her shoulders drop in relief.
"Hey, relax." I let the shirt go and run my hand down her arm. "Did you sleep?"
"For a while." She starts to move her arm, as if she's going to shake me off, but stops. I swallow. Suddenly the room is silent except for the sounds of breathing. A couple of beats and I send my hand skimming back up her arm to her shoulder. My thumb brushes the side of her neck.
"What are you doing?" she says, half turning. My hand gets bumped and lands beside her waist.
"You're wound tighter than a watch spring, Marita. The tension's not going to do you any good."
"I know how to relax."
"What, the way you were relaxing at four this morning? Yeah, you've got it all figured out." My hand tightens against her waist.
A shiver runs through her and her hand closes over mine, pinning it in place. But she doesn't shove it away. And Junior's awake now and not at all likely to lie down quietly like a good boy. "You think you can do it all on your own, Marita. Well, maybe you shouldn't. Maybe you don't have to anymore."
Still she doesn't push me away. Her hand's a patch of heat over mine.
My breathing is shallow. "You know, you need to loosen up, let go a little," I say, swallowing around the words. Every cell in my body is awake now. I can smell the soap scent on her, almost feel parts of her I'm not touching.
"I can't afford to, Alex."
"Maybe you can't afford not to."
My thumb moves slightly, sliding up under the edge of her shirt. I feel the in-and-out of her breathing against my palm and fingers. Hoping I won't blow it, I let my thumb brush the softness there. Her breath catches. But no protest. Carefully I slip my hand around front to settle against her belly. And now it's pretty obvious that I'm not the only one feeling what I do.
"Relax," I whisper, catching her left shoulder with my chin and coaxing her back against my chest. I nip at the side of her neck and my hand goes exploring, slow and easy: smooth belly, gradually up to the warm fullness of a breast--her breathing quickens--and then the other, a hard little knot buried deep against the roundness in my palm. I count to ten, remind myself I need to take it slow, make her want this as much as I do.
And she's getting there, her breathing faster and shallow, a whimper rising in her throat. Her head turns, her lips catching mine. "Want more?" I ask into her open mouth, two fingers resting under the elastic of her waistband.
She nods, flushed.
"Meet me in the pool."
And she does. It's not that I've got such exotic tastes; it's pure practicality. The default position would be awkward as hell with the arm gone, and I don't want to spend time fumbling around like an amateur. But in the water... Let's just say that standing chest-deep in the pool, Marita with her arms and legs wrapped around me, rain pouring down on us, is something I'm going to remember for a very long time.
Things don't take long to develop, need and contact swirling everything into a blur of sensation. When it's over I just stand there panting against her, high as a kite, feeling the imprint of that smooth, amazing flesh against me. I rub my nose against her shoulder.
"You know, you're gorgeous when you give up," I whisper, grinning like an idiot around the words.
Her head comes up; she looks as dopey as I do but her expression quickly changes. "What if I told you I have videotape of this whole thing?" she says, her voice dropping to that low challenge she does so well.
Panic shoots through me and my mouth falls open. She just looks at me and breaks out laughing.
She leans back, still laughing. I could let go of her, let her go under, but all I see is that pale, smooth neck. I catch a bit of it between my teeth. "You'd better be joking."
Her head comes up. "I don't film," she says. "I also don't 'give up'." She reaches between us and grabs something sensitive.
"Got it," I say, squirming, and she lets go.
At this point my biggest wish would be to fall asleep without having to move another muscle. But no such luck given where I am. We detach, I kiss her, then turn back and kiss her again.
"You looked wiped out, Alex," she says. The tone's a mock put-down but she's grinning, her cheeks are flushed, and anyway, it's true. The rain has turned to a sprinkle and I climb out and stretch out on the chaise lounge. "What about you?" I say.
"I think I'm going to swim for a while," she says, and I turn my head to watch as she starts. The worry's dogged me ever since I lost the arm: that I'd never get laid again, that no woman was ever going to want me like this. The moment comes flooding back, the two of us lost in the intensity of it, and I grin in spite of myself. My guess is that Marita doesn't go around giving it away, either. Though it seems she definitely needed it. Make that two of us.
I reach down to rearrange things; Junior's fallen asleep and not long afterward, I follow. I dream of being on the island again. It's late spring; low-hanging mist is breaking up to show bits of blue sky overhead, and wildflowers carpet the meadows as I start up the trail leading toward the mountain.
When Marita wakes me on her way out of the pool, I'm groggy as anything and soaked; the rain is coming down hard. Inside again, I manage to dry off; then I crawl into bed and drift off almost immediately.
When I come around, the smell of toast is drifting in from the kitchen. I blink and try to clear my head. The clock on the little table beside the bed says 9:30. And again, I've been sweating onto the sheets.
"So you've slept it off?"
I glance up to see Marita, arms crossed, leaning against the door frame. She's got a different shirt on this time--peachy colored--and a pair of khaki shorts. The heat here never seems to quit.
"Who, me?" Afterward can be awkward; you never know quite where you're going to stand with a woman. "Does it ever cool down around here?"
"It's the equator, Alex. You're out of luck."
"Is it this bad where you come from?"
"No, thank goodness. It stays warm, but it's not this extreme. Or this humid." She pauses. "Are you hungry?"
She's gotten together some fresh bread from a little place down the street, and some cheese and local fruits, most of them kinds I've never seen before. We sit eating in the kitchen, not really touching on what happened earlier.
"I talked to Senor Carranza downstairs," she says. "He's promised to have a portable air conditioner sent up by this afternoon."
My hand stops halfway to my mouth. This will be interesting. "Great." We'll be able to cool one room. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out. Or where it leads.
"I'd take you around, show you the town, Alex, but I'm still jet-lagged."
"No problem. Same here. By the time you start to come out of it, it's time to leave again." I pause, watch her. "'S going to be rough for you on Monday."
There's this momentary pause from her, as if the fact that I've thought about what will happen to her touches some sensitive place.
"You're lucky you don't have to be anywhere," she says. "A job, I mean," she adds, realizing that I might actually have a schedule.
"Been meaning to let you know," I say between bites. "The first of November I'll be gone for a week getting the arm retooled. The prosthesis, not this." I nod toward the stump. "Thing shrinks and you've got to refit." Pain in the ass, but there's nothing to be done about it. "I scheduled it so I'd be back on track before our second distribution comes up."
"I appreciate you letting me know." She's pushing a chunk of cherimoya around her plate with a fork but doesn't pick it up.
"You have any vacation time?" I ask. "A chance you can get away--you know, somewhere close with no jet lag involved--and just relax for a week or so? It'd do you good."
"Do I look that run down?" The sardonic smile again, but I can tell it's only a front this time.
"You're fine." I pause. "Okay, better than fine." I flash a smile. She's gorgeous, actually, though there's no point in letting it go to her head. "But you need a break. I'm in this, too; I know the signs." I stop to pick up a little yellow fruit about the size of a marble and pinch the papery covering off between my fingers. "Anything can happen. You want something you can look back on for the time you've spent on this rock, even if it's just climbing a mountain and getting a good view of a sunrise over the water." I shrug.
"Aren't you the philosopher this morning," she says, picking up her coffee cup and cradling it just below her lips.
I ignore the tone in her voice and raise an eyebrow. "Maybe I was inspired."
She smiles at that.
"Think about it," I say.
So that's how the time goes: a little sleep, a little intersection where we talk for a while and then go our separate ways. I'm starting to get cabin fever, but I don't know the area. There's always the outside possibility of being spotted if we go out, and anyway, neither of us really has the energy. Neither of us goes in the pool, either, as if it might look like we're trying to start something. Though more of what went on before would be okay by me, and my guess is I'm not alone in that; it would just take getting past this awkwardness.
About 11 o'clock the doorbell rings; they've brought the air conditioner. Because of the way it's set up, the only place it's going to work is in one of the windows in the living room. After they get it working we sit around for a while, talking through our first distribution of the vaccine. We've got high hopes, and a lot of planning has gone into contingencies for how this might play out, but we can't kid ourselves about the considerable risks of what we'll be attempting. The success of the plan depends on nobody finding out who we are and what we're up to; any adverse publicity could expose us and kill this project. If the old men find out, Marita and I are likely to end up dead along with it.
Our strategy's already mapped out: D.C. and New York will be write-offs, the first places we figure any alien attacks are likely to strike, so we're not wasting our vaccine there. The initial doses will go to military at Wright-Patterson in Ohio (ironically, one of the sites where the Roswell UFOs were deconstructed), the naval training center north of Chicago, and scientists and university students in what we hope will be secure areas--Boston, Toronto, Rochester--to protect people who could conceivably be our first line of defense in combating the invasion. The northeast will be our starting point, with the greatest number of potential facilities for research and defense, along with colder temperatures that are more likely to inhibit the oil. And we'll fan out from there. As far as we can go, and as many countries. For as long as we're able.
Between the thoughts of invasion and the hour, though, we eventually reach a point when all we want is to get away, find something to eat, swap out the walls of the apartment for different scenery. We go down the street, find a little café and have some lunch, then take a cab to the university and wander around the huge, shady 'green zones' for a while.
The longer we're out, the quieter I get. Marita's enjoying the lake in the middle of the campus, but all I can think about is how many things can go wrong with the distribution: aftereffects of the injections leading people to question the contents or quality of their 'flu shot' or whatever we'll be telling them it is; questions from people administering it; maybe a chance discovery of a batch of some vaccine that's being dumped to make way for ours. The more you explore the possibilities, the more you wonder what the hell makes you think this will ever work.
Two little boys run past me, laughing, and I pull myself back to the moment. Marita's on the other end of the bench, looking out at the water. On the benches around us families share food they've brought in bags and baskets. A normal childhood, she said. Which meant family, friends: attachments, and consequences of those attachments, that I probably can't even begin to comprehend.
"You ever go home?" I ask, looking to break the silence.
She squints over at me, opens her mouth but no words follow. She shakes her head. "It's difficult," she says finally. "It's tiring to lie, to make up a life and be on alert so you won't slip up."
"Yeah." I nod. "Your mother's there, isn't she?"
"Yes. Unfortunately we don't have that much in common." She looks out into the water. "She wanted a different life for me. In her mind I was supposed be a well-to-do wife, the kind of elegant woman who gets written up on the society page. And who would give her grandchildren. A boy and a girl, of course." She smiles, but it turns sour. Or painful. Hard to tell.
She looks away again and I study her hairline, little beads of sweat forming along it, and the curve of neck and shoulder. Her hair's pulled back loosely and tied with some kind of ribbon.
"I'm ready to go," she says, turning to me. "How about you?"
I nod. We get up and start back to where we can find a taxi. "Living room should be cool by now," I say, and we walk the rest of the way to the main square without speaking.
Back in the apartment I'm restless. It hits me that I've really slipped if I've taken this place for granted and not even bothered to check for bugs. Not that I assume Marita's placed any, though it's possible, and it's best never to assume anything. But there's always the chance that the old men have been keeping an eye on her from a distance without her realizing. During Soviet times, it was the people who never seemed to be under surveillance that they gleaned the most intel from. If you couldn't spot your designated spy following you, you should've realized something was wrong. But people would relax, and that was their downfall.
I check my room first: under the bed, the dresser, the lamps. I feel for wires leading to light switches and outlets, but I don't find anything. I'm taking a look inside the air conditioning unit when Marita comes out of her room and spots me.
"What are you doing?" She scowls. One hand goes to her hip.
"Checking this thing," I say.
"But it was working fine."
She isn't sure what to make of me now.
"I've known Don Carlos for--"
"I'm not saying your friend's trying to sell you out. The old men."
Her mouth opens. She lets out a sigh and drops into the nearest chair.
"Haven't found anything, though," I say. "Not in the rest of the house, either, if it makes you feel any better. But they play hardball, Marita, and they'll play it with you if they find out." I pause and frown. "Could you, uh, give me a hand with this panel? I managed to get it off, but--"
But lifting it into place again with only one good hand--not even close. She comes over, squats down beside me and holds the panel in place while I screw the cover on again. I can smell the lemon-scented shampoo from the bathroom on her hair. I'd like to think the close quarters would make for a nice transition into something a little more personal, but I can tell this isn't the time. After we get the thing running again, we each claim one of the sofas on either side of the coffee table.
"You know, anything can happen," I say. "Like that bug bite--weird, unexpected things you'd never imagine. Look, I realize you've got reasons for having your double security with FarmaCol, but if something happened to you, this plan would be finished. Kaput."
"And you're suggesting?"
"That you set it up so that I could get that code if I needed it."
"Alex, I don't even know you."
Her words hit me like a slap in the face. I push up off the couch and stand. "What? But you knew a stranger well enough to fuck him in that pool out there?"
She shoots me a kill look. "You know what I mean. I've spent the last six years working on this; my father gave up his life for it. I'm not giving it away--not to any man. Not even to one who comes along offering to help make it work."
"You recruited me. I brought you the vaccine, Marita. Without it, your plan would be nothing more than a pipe dream right now."
The corner of her mouth twitches and the flinty gray in her eyes begins to soften. "I know. I realize we wouldn't be here without what you've brought to this. But realistically, Alex, if our places were reversed, would you give me the code if it were your plan?"
I push out a breath, run a hand back though my hair. "Probably not. But that still doesn't change the situation. If something happened to you, we'd be up Shit Creek. How would that help the goal you've worked for all these years?"
"I'll think about it, Alex. But for now, I don't know you well enough for that. Not yet."
"Well, I'm not going to sit here and pour out my whole life story for you to pick through until you find whatever it is you're looking for." I pause. "And I'm not naïve enough to think you're going to do the same for me, either."
And I turn and go to my room. At the moment I could really use one of those confrontations with Mulder. He could punch me and I could pound him back until we'd both had enough, and then we could set it aside and move on.
But my hands are tied here. Hand. She's a woman--an arrogant woman with a sharp set of fangs. Beyond that, she holds all the cards. Pressing her feet to the fire, even if there were a way to do it, would only make her pull away from this... 'joint venture', this not-quite-partnership, forced marriage--whatever the hell you want to call it. I should be so lucky.
The problem is, I am; the fact that her plan and my ability to get the vaccine intersected is nothing short of a miracle. Which means for now I'm going to have to put up and shut up. Instead of being the old man's bitch, I end up as Marita's bitch.
Not for any longer than I have to, though. I toss a pillow off the bed, roll toward the wall and not long afterward fall into a fitful sleep.
I open my eyes. The sky is overcast and darkening; I don't see raindrops but I can smell them. Marita's squatted beside the bed.
"Truce?" she says. She's got that soft-around-the-edges look again, and a voice to go with it.
I frown at her. "You're the one firing the big guns."
"I know." She pauses. "And I realize it's not the ideal way to run a collaboration. But you probably know what it feels like when the world wants to take what you've worked so hard to get. You clutch it close to you."
"Mm." I raise an eyebrow. "Usually for good reason."
"Exactly." She stands.
I pull up. "Too hot in here."
"It's cool in the living room."
So I follow her out there.
But she surprises me and doesn't sit on either of the couches; she settles on the floor on her side, propped up on one elbow. I take her cue, sit in front of the couch and lean back against it.
"What time do we leave in the morning?" I say.
"Five-thirty. The vaccine should be ready to load when we arrive."
I'm not looking forward to another dozen hours in the air, but it's not like anybody's giving me a choice.
"You know, there's nothing going to make me sabotage this plan," I say. "Believe it or not I've been dealing with this--thinking about it"--I glance up at the ceiling--"having nightmares about it"--and refocus on her--"longer than you have. Since I was a kid."
She gives me a curious look.
"I was"--I push out a breath--"eleven the first time he took me to the place where they were doing the research."
"Why?" She seems pained by that, and she hasn't even heard the story yet.
"He wanted me to see the Oil--what it was, what it did. So I'd know what my life work was: to fight that. Or to fight it for him, to be on the inside, give him a leg up on what was going on."
Now she really looks horrified.
"Wasn't any picnic." I pull up, turn around and lie down on my back, though my head ends up a little closer to Marita's than I'd figured on. I stare at the light fixture on the ceiling, kind of a grooved, pumpkin-shaped thing.
"He took you to Russia so you could grow up to be a mole for the vaccine program?"
"That and whatever else he wanted done. Until he decided I was more trouble than I was worth."
"The story in the board room was that you'd been killed in a car accident."
"Yeah, well, he would've liked it that way. No accident, though. Just luck that I managed to get out before it blew sky high." I count the grooves in the amber glass above me. "I ran like hell."
"And sold the secrets on the DAT tape which you then used to finance the Russian research."
"When the opportunity came up, yeah. Good thing I'm not a big spender, didn't fritter the money away."
"And in between?"
I shrug, but inside I get that inevitable knot in my stomach. "That's the other thing," I say. "This thing with the Oil--it's personal with me." I take a few deep breaths, try to make sure the memories aren't sneaking out from some dark corner of my head to set up their usual ambush. I glance over at Marita. She's waiting, eager.
"It got into me once. Jumped to me from somebody else it was traveling in." I look up again, count the seven grooves once, twice... In my mind's eye I can see the old man looking through me, talking right to the Oil. He'd been expecting it. And that little smirk of his, knowing where the Oil would take me.
Where it would leave me.
I glance over at Marita. She's on her stomach now, propped up on her elbows. There's this look in her eyes; she wants to know what it was like, but she doesn't want to know. Definitely isn't going to ask.
"You don't want to know," I say, and the dryness in my voice warns me that I need to get a grip.
Her head goes down; blonde hair spills around her face. After a moment she rolls onto her back and looks up.
"Light fixture's pretty interesting," I say, twisting my head to look at her. It takes her a few seconds to realize it's a joke. She smiles briefly and then looks up again.
"For years I've blamed Spender... for all of this," she says. "For the way my father's spirit was broken, for what my life has become. For everything I've had to leave behind." She turns to look at me. "It's true what they say, though... about everything being relative. I can't imagine--" She frowns.
A moment later she rolls toward me; her hand smooths across my cheek and settles along my jaw bone.
"What, so now you feel sorry for me?"
She puts a finger on my lips. "Not everything anyone offers you is a lie, or a trick."
I take her hand, look up at the ceiling, let my thumb brush across her fingers. "We'll make him pay," I say, and feel her grip tighten against mine. "In the end we'll make the son of a bitch pay."
You can probably guess where things go from there. Doing it in the pool was a lot easier, and much as I'd rather be on top, I settle for what I can manage. Parts of it are awkward as hell, but that's probably more my ego screaming than anything else; Marita seems to be enjoying herself, and what I'm getting, I have to admit, is pretty damn good. We wear ourselves out in her room, then take showers, snack on what's left in the fridge and end up in the living room again, where Marita's laid out the cushions from both couches on the floor together. By then it's nearly ten, and we need to get what sleep we can before we get up early and head to the airport.
For a while I lie there beside her staring up at the shadow patterns on the ceiling, thinking about the woman who shows through when all the layers are peeled away, and about Miguel Ansbach's warning to be careful with her. I have to laugh now at how naïve I'd been at the time. Me, sleep with this woman?
Eventually I notice she's looking at me.
"What, still awake?" I say.
"Thinking," she says, and lets out a little sigh.
"You do that too much, you know. Bad for your health." And I catch her shoulder between my teeth, hold on carefully and then kiss the place. "You're like that poem of Akhmatova's."
"'I am not one of those who left the land to the mercy of its enemies'," I start, and then repeat the line in Russian, where it sounds more real.
"'We do not flinch from anything'. Sound like anybody you know? Huh?"
She rolls her eyes, but when I reach over and pull her close, she curls her head down below my chin and an arm slips around my waist. "Superheroes only exist in comic books, Marita. You need to take care of yourself."
And that's the way we fall asleep. After midnight I wake up to find the blanket down around my waist. Marita's curled on her side, her back to me. I pull the blanket up over us and listen to her breathing, but it's not shallow enough for her to be asleep. Carefully I roll toward her and pull up slightly, brushing the hair back from her face. She closes her eyes when she notices me looking, but I've seen them already, shiny and full, close to spilling.
'We are the people without tears'--another line from the same poem. But I don't say anything; she didn't want me to notice in the first place. Instead I slip my arm around her, breathe into the small space between her neck and shoulder and work my way back toward sleep.
At four we get up, pack and go to the airport. Just like Marita said, the boxes are there waiting when we arrive. We go through each one, making sure all the vaccine is there, and load it onto the plane. Twelve hours later we're descending into New York to drop Marita off; after that, I'll continue on to oversee drops at distribution points in Boston and Ohio, then head to Toronto with the last of the shipment.
As the plane descends, Marita puts on her game face; actually, she's been gradually putting on her public self for the last couple of hours, ever since she woke up. I stay out of her way and don't try to start anything; after all, our success depends on her ability to be on top of what she does, to wear the façade and juggle all the details. I hate feeling helpless, but until I can work myself deeper into this plan, I'm just going to have to suck it up. Besides, I have a whole list of things I need to take care of for this vaccine distribution before it starts.
The wheels touch down on the runway with a sharp screech and the pressure of deceleration pushes us back into our seats. Across the aisle from me, Marita grimaces momentarily, but forces a smile when she sees me looking. The co-pilot opens the door to the cockpit and tells us it'll be about two minutes until we're parked. Marita reaches for her bag, pulls out a pad of paper and a pen and starts jotting notes. I wonder where the woman I saw this weekend has gone. And when--or if--I'll see her again. Beyond the windows, New York is settling into evening, the last light of day painting the horizon in a strip of glowing pinks and oranges.
When she stands up, I stand, too. The door to the cockpit is open and she's obviously aware of that fact.
"Have a safe trip home," I say.
She smiles briefly, shouldering her bag. "Thank you for your help, Mr. Jameson. It was very much appreciated. Call me from Toronto and let me know how your flight was."
Awkwardly I hold out my hand. She takes it, pumps it once, then with a glance toward the cockpit, she brushes a kiss against my cheek.
A moment later she's out the door and going down the stairway. I watch until she disappears into the terminal, navy coat floating out behind her, then turn back to the plane interior, switch on my overhead reading light and pull out my checklist for the Ohio drop.
"Would you like to try an appetizer while you're waiting, sir?"
I look up to find the co-pilot standing beside me, a fancy tray of fruit and cheese in one hand.
He sets it down in front of me. "Dinner will be served as soon as we're airborne," he says, and then turns and leaves.
I pick up a thin little fork, poke it into a chunk of melon and picture Marita in the Cali apartment, pushing a piece of fruit around her plate. Then Marita sitting on the edge of the bed in that soft little pink shirt. Closing my eyes, I lean back into the seat and hold that thought.