CHAPTER ONE

In the early afternoon, Gregory waters the twin lobby plants by the front door, a pair of Aglaonema commutatum, Silver Queens.  Quite useless by way of function, but they keep the air circulating and his clients seem to appreciate them.  They also do a decent job filling up some of the negative space, a duty shared with a moderately-sized abstract painting of cream and olive patchwork textures above the office’s single seat, an ivory modular armchair.

After the potted soil of each plant have reached appropriate levels of moistness, Gregory does a cursory sweep of the rust-and-buff tile floor before moving to his work area.  He wipes down the wood and granite of his standing desk, organizes his tidy shelving and the papers and office supplies within, checks that the Smith & Wesson resting next to his point-five millimeter mechanical pencils is loaded with the safety on, angled approximately thirty-three degrees toward the center of the entryway.

The façade of his desk has decorative spacing between the heavy cherrywood slats, an inch for every ten gapped by a sublayer of matte black board.  He dusts these thoroughly, mindful of the third gap from the left which aligns with the front entryway, and the muzzle of the Model Ten, and has delicate matte black cardstock in place of board.

The bell above the door sounds, and Gregory straightens.  But he goes still at the small, perplexing figure shuffling toward him.

“Hi,” the very young boy says beneath scruffy brown hair.  “I’d like to, to sell my soul to the devil.”  The words are slow to come together, but firm and matter-of-fact in their delivery.  He reaches his small hands onto the counter, fingers smudging up the high polish of the bronze granite, maybe six years old:  wobbling like he’s standing on his toes, unable to quite see over the edge.

Gregory looks down at a dirty face, takes in doll-sized blue jeans and a fibrous red sweater more suited in size to an adult, or in condition to a dog’s kennel.  Then he glances around the empty lobby, briefly, and finds no one to whom the child might belong.

“How much I can get for it?”  The boy asks, scrunching up his eyebrows.  Gregory isn’t sure if the transposed words are an accident or a dialect, if his parents are immigrants of some stripe or if kids just talk like this.

“I’m afraid I don’t provide or facilitate that service,” Gregory says finally.  He glances at his tablet, skimming through the ever-present scheduling app.  The firm’s next appointment isn’t due for another hour, and the terse, informative note certainly makes no mention of small children.

“But you’re lawyers,” the little boy points out, which isn’t expressly true.  Gregory is a consultant, though often there are lawyers involved.  Often, there are many kinds of people involved.

The boy hops a little from foot to foot.  He’s wearing a scarf, but no coat or mittens.  “Dad said, lawyers do the devil’s work.  Do you know where I can, um, find him?”

“Your father?”  Gregory asks, at a loss.

“The devil,” the boy says, frowning.  Then his face smooths over.  “Dad died.  Is the devil here?”

There isn’t a devil, Gregory almost says, but he’s not sure if that’s a thing you say to a child—that there’s no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy, that there are no gods or devils.

“No,” he simply says.

“Oh.”  The boy pulls his hands back, leaving a faint smear of grime that’s already causing Gregory to reach for the eco-friendly bottle of spray cleaner.  There’s a soft, organic-cotton cloth beside it, because Gregory is nothing if not fastidious.

The boy disappears.  Gregory wipes down the counter, mops up the melted snow the kid tracked in, and ruthlessly organizes his austere work area.

At precisely two fifty-two, the three PM appointment makes an appearance.

“What have I told you,” Gregory snaps irritably, glancing past Ward into the empty white streets, “about using a false name at my legitimate business enterprises.”

“Not to,” she says briskly.  “But as evidenced by my numerous attempts to contact you, it is clear that you wouldn’t’ve seen me otherwise.”  She hasn’t changed, really—her eyes are still fiercely hazel, her shoulders narrow, her face angular and hawkish.  She’s cut her hair since he saw her last, but hasn’t changed the dyed-black color.

“I took a bullet for you,” Gregory bites out, his mouth stiff around the words that have been rattling around inside his head for the past six months.  It’s not what he meant to lead with, but it’s what he has.  “I took a bullet for you, and you left me.”  He does not say, You abandoned me like one of your marks.

She stares him down hard, unflinching and unapologetic.  “As I have bloody well attempted to explain on several occasions—”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Gregory bites out, his hands braced defensively on the counter, a solid barrier between them.  His guts ache when it’s cold like this.  There’s an ugly, rippled scar across his belly he’ll carry for the rest of his life.  He still has physical therapy on Thursday nights.  “If you will not leave, I will have you escorted out.”

Ward’s face shifts from earnesty to surprise to brief concern.  But everything falls away like shuffled cards, fast and fleeting, until all she looks is angry.  “Fine,” she says, in that clipped way he’s only ever heard her direct at individuals on the business-end of her SOCOM.  She slams a slightly damp rectangle of paper onto the counter, aggressively in the space between his hands, her flesh a British-pale counter to the muddy complexion of his own absent forbears.  He’s always felt so dark next to her.  He’d forgotten.

“It’s clean,” she says.  The memo line at the bottom reads, For services rendered.  “From the Cayman account.”

Then she brushes her hands down the front of her slim black peacoat, dusting the wool free of salt, and turns on her heel.

Gregory’s thinking, bewilderingly, of calling after her when she pauses in front of the frosted glass-and-steel doors to slide on her sunglasses.

She turns her head partway, the sunless winter sky a stark glow against the edges of her slightly-crooked nose and pink cheeks.  She says, with an air of finality, “I left you at the bloody hospital, Turner.  You needed to recover and I needed to lose a tail.  But you know that already.  I’d tell you to look me up if you ever pull your head out of your arse, but as I will no longer take pains for your ease to do so—,” she lets that hang in the air between them.  Then she steps out into the afternoon.

Gregory closes the offices at three-fifteen instead of five.  He can do this because he is the only person who works here, and because he pays his own salary.

He locks the well-oiled lock and pulls on the handle three times to test the latch.  Then he turns east and almost trips over the little boy.

“Why are you still here?”  He asks, frowning.  The boy has his hands under his arms, his chin tucked into his scarf.  When he looks up at Gregory, his cheeks and nose are very, very pink.

“Waiting for the devil to come,” the boy says, his teeth chattering.  It’s hardly thirty degrees out.

“Who do you belong to?”  Gregory asks, staring up and down the block.  Ashley, the woman who owns the flower shop across the street, is hanging the holiday-themed version of her usual sign; several stores down, there’s a small group of touristy people going into Aaron’s bakery.

“I don’t know.  Will he be here today?”  The boy asks, biting his lip.  It’s very chapped.

“Where do you live?”

“Some, some empty houses on Wicker,” he says.  “Sometimes Anna or, or Roscoe have a fire and it’s, um, warm.  But if it’s Black Jack, he doesn’t l-let me sleep there.”

Gregory pulls out his phone and calls the non-emergency police number.  He spends five minutes on hold, another five being transferred, and finally ends up speaking to a kindly, half-senile woman who apologetically tells him the shelter is full for the evening, but to call the non-emergency number for the police and they should be able to keep the child overnight.  She says with surprising pointedness that they cannot legally allow a minor to wander the streets without a guardian.

When Gregory calls the police station back, the man on the other end listens patiently, asks Gregory to hold, and patches him through to another shelter.  This one is also full, and he given the number for the first shelter he called.

“I’ve already spoken with Miss Paulson,” Gregory explains.

“It never hurts to try again,” the woman, Edith Peters, urges.  “If they really can’t squeeze him in, try calling the non-emergency police number.  They can’t—”

“—legally allow a minor to wander the streets without a guardian?”  Gregory interrupts rudely.

“Right,” Edith says.  “Good luck.” The line disconnects.

Gregory stares at his phone blankly, then looks down at the cold child.  He puts his phone away.  He goes to the back lot and starts his car.

If the kid’s gone, he thinks as he waits for it to warm up.  If the kid’s gone by the time I pull around.

Five minutes later, the kid is not gone.  Gregory rolls down the passenger window and says what he should have said at the beginning.  “There’s no such thing as a devil.  He’s just a monster in a story.”

The boy stares at him, his eyes big and blue.  “Oh.  Really?”

“Yes.  Really,” Gregory says.  The kid gets to his feet, awkward and stiff with cold.  Gregory is about to roll his window up, but the problem with that is he’s still watching the kid.

The kid, who’s glancing left and right, and shaking, and has snow in his hair and wet jeans on and is almost certainly homeless.  Lips pressed together and shoulders hunched, he looks lost in a way he didn’t before, and Gregory knows what it’s like to have your safe, careful plans slip through your hands like smoke.

He unlocks the passenger door before he has a chance to think about it.  “Get in, kid,” he says tiredly.  “You’re showing early signs of frostbite.”

The kid looks at him nervously, his breath puffing in the air.  Gregory waits.  The kid gets in the car.

Didn’t anyone teach him not to talk to strangers, he wonders, resigned.

“Do you have any family,” he asks.

“No,” the boy says, folding low over his knees to get closer to the heat vents.  He put his seatbelt on, though, and his clothes aren’t too dirty or torn up.  He hasn’t been on the streets for very long.

“Where were you staying last week?”

His eyes cut to Gregory’s face, then back to the space beyond his hands.  “Shelter.”

Gregory unbuttons his coat and the top three buttons of his shirt one-handed, easing his car out into city traffic, and bumps the heat up the rest of the way.  He starts to make a mental list:  several changes of clothes, shoes, a toothbrush, gloves, a coat.

“Um,” the kid asks.

“What’s your name?”  Gregory says.

“Alex,” Alex says, his shoulders starting to unhitch.

“Turner,” Gregory replies.  “Gregory Turner.  What would you like for dinner?”

*

Gregory’s apartment has two bedrooms, not because he can’t afford something larger, but because he’s never needed more from life than a place to sleep and a place to work.  He does not have the sorts of friends that result in even the occasional houseguest.  But, after reviewing the product specifications of the loveseat in his office, he finds that his memory is correct, and that it pulls out into a serviceable sofabed.  The mechanism is stiff from disuse, but the mattress includes the original factory sheets, and he supplies it with a spare pillow and several blankets.  He feels it is acceptable for now.

He’s already moving the kid’s clothes, old and new, from the washer to the dryer by the time Alex comes out of the bathroom, damp in the way kids are after they’ve dried their hair but neglected basically everything else.  He’s wearing one of Gregory’s old tee-shirts and a pair of draw-string lounge pants pulled tight enough to more or less stay up, and there’s toothpaste on his lip.

“Rinse your mouth out again.  I put some take-out menus on the kitchen table, so just circle what you want.”

Alex trudges back into the bathroom, heavy-footed on the polished wooden floors.  There’s the sound of the sink running, and Gregory remembers that he’s home now and can loosen his tie.

He’ll change out of his suit when the food is ordered.

Alex comes out again, awkward in too-long pant legs that gather around his feet, and Gregory says, “Your clothes are in the dryer.”

“Thank you,” he says in a rush, like it’s something he kept forgetting, was rehearsing for the half-hour he spent warming up in the shower.  “I could’ve worn the, the new ones, you didn’t have to wash them first.”

“Ridiculous,” Gregory replies.  “What do you—”

There’s a pretty sturdy round of knocks on his front door, interrupting his repeat-prompt about dinner.  This is alarming for several reasons, not the least of which is that his apartment complex has very high security and no one has called up about visitors.

“Open the fucking door, you wanker, you know I know you’re in there.”

Gregory’s heart sinks like a handful of packed earth through a stream, falling all over itself on the way down.

His door clicks open.  Gregory half-turns while Alex moves nervously behind him, and in the doorway there’s a familiar hand slipping a familiar set of small metal tools into a familiarly placed bespoke peacoat pocket.  Then Ward is shutting the door behind her and raising her eyes sheepishly.  “I changed my mind, I wanted to—oh.  Hello there.”

“What the fuck,” Gregory hisses, but Ward raises her eyebrows and a hand.

“Language, Turner.”

Hypocrite.”

She crouches down about three yards away from them, and her voice is kind.  “What’s your name, sprog?”

Alex peeks out from the vicinity of Gregory’s waist.  “A-Alex.”

Recognition passes briefly over her face, but she mostly just looks friendly.  “What have you done to terrorize this child?”  Infuriating and friendly.

Gregory starts, “I haven’t—”

“He’s—Gregory’s ordering dinner,” Alex says brightly.  “I didn’t have a house.  He’s very, he’s, he’s nice.”

“Dinner,” Ward says, sliding off her jacket as Gregory’s panic and fury ratchet up another notch.  Something about the rustle of fabric gets her smell in the air—the soapy lavender wash she’s been using as long as he’s known her, which was great when they worked together because her smell always meant safety, but now it just means danger and pain and goddamnit is Turner still angry.

And she still manages to dress like a shabby teenager, even under a three-thousand-dollar Burberry.  And she’s losing weight again, which means she hasn’t been eating, and Gregory notices even though he’s not her keeper.

“Great,” Ward smiles, with teeth.  “What are we having?”

Wordlessly, Gregory goes into the kitchen and grabs the menus off the table.  He all but shoves them in her face.

“You seem tense,” she mentions, waving Alex closer.

“Why are you here,” he hisses.

“Certainly that would be to profess undying love and eternal devotion,” she answers, as though it’s the most obvious thing in the world.

I will actually kill you.”

Ward pats Gregory affectionately on the shin, still of a height with Alex to help him with the menu.  It’s kind of hard to stay mad at her after that, since it’s something Gregory wouldn’t have thought about—that six-year-olds can’t read very well, that they might not be used to pan-Asian cuisine.

She hands over their orders (chicken fried rice, Buddhist delight, veggie egg rolls) and proceeds to pull out a deck of playing cards.

“This one says you’re going to face a challenge of the heart,” he hears from the kitchen, “but you’ll be strong enough to overcome it.”

“You talk funny,” Alex giggles.

“Those aren’t even Tarot cards!”  Gregory shouts as the call connects, hastily following with a clipped apology to the woman who answers.  He places the order, grudgingly adding in a second Buddhist delight.  It’s his usual anyway.  But Ward has a way of coming into a room and filling it up until there’s no space for anything else, until you feel like something you’ve always done was her idea just because she picks it up, too.

He puts the phone down and waits, counts down from ten, but when he turns around she’s in the kitchen with him.  She hadn’t made a sound.  He can’t have forgotten how quiet she can be, it’s only been a few months, but Ward’s greatest deception is that she’s only loud and brash when it suits her.  That’s always been the case.

“Ten seconds,” she says coldly, and he finally registers the barely-there but ever-present angle of her Glock, shoulder-holstered beneath the fabric of her open hoodie.  “Kid’s in the bathroom.  What the fuck are you doing with Vadim Bagodanovic’s dead bloody son?”

*

“Shit,” Gregory says, after.

“Right,” Ward says, nursing her porter.  “Plan?”

It’s getting on eight PM.  Gregory has finally managed to peel himself out of his day clothes, vulnerable and exposed now in a black, long-sleeved compression shirt and loose gray sweats, and Alex has fallen asleep on the sofa beneath a couple of spare blankets.  They’d watched half of a movie after dinner, the three of them, Gregory too keyed-up to pay attention to the cartoon thieves dancing across the screen, but Ward keeping a running commentary that left Alex scandalized and breathless with laughter.  The take-out containers have since been discarded, and Ward has been filling him in over a couple of bottles of after-dinner beer in the kitchen.

She’d only raised her eyebrows at the presence of the untouched six-pack; Gregory’s always preferred wine or the very occasional IPA.  They both know this.

“WITSEC,” Gregory replies.  It’s the most straightforward option.  “Armed legal custody at a government facility until a willing relative can be found or a legal guardian established.”

“Right, because your government has really got it together when it comes to civilian safety,” Ward chastises.  She’s slid up onto the granite countertop, her knees open and her eyes thoughtful.  Her hair, loose and dark around her pointed face, gleams red where the light filters through at the edges—dye from a previous job, blacked-out now like permanent marker on a redacted file.  It had been shoulder-length and blonde in Prague, and the month before that in Dublin she’d had it chestnut brown to her middle back.

After the hundred combinations of color and cut over the years, no particular style has ever come to mind if he thinks of her.  Just the image that stuck with him:  her pale, angular face beneath the Royal Marines beret she’d been wearing when they met.

“That’s hardly fair.”

“Do you have any idea,” Ward says around her bottle mouth, “how many ‘protected citizens’ I’ve—extracted—from WITSEC?”

Gregory could hazard a guess.  He was involved with the bulk of the paperwork.  “Then what are we going to do with him.”

Ward opens her mouth, but doesn’t say anything.  Gregory raises his eyes to her face, puzzled, but after a beat he hears it too:  the rustle of blankets on the couch, the soft sounds of sleep-talk and a child-sized deep breath.

“We?” She asks quietly, amused.  She’d only shaken her head, earlier, when Gregory had told her about finding the kid outside his office.  He’d grabbed the beers after the movie, after Alex had fallen asleep; after Ward had told him about the father, and put up her holster.

Yes,” Gregory murmurs sharply, dropping his voice a few octaves to skirt curious ears.  Ward shifts stiffly.  “He said he didn’t have any family.  Do you think he knows about his uncle?”

Ward polishes off her bottle, leaning her shoulders back against the cabinets.  Her leggings, which had looked like proper pants from the knees down, look like pajamas without her peacoat.  “Legally speaking, Ivor Bagodanovic hasn’t been implicated in the takeover.  Legally speaking, the Bagodanovics are not traceably affiliated with the River Trail Industrial Park, or any alleged illegalities thereof associated.  If Alex suddenly turned up, legally speaking, Ivor would be his next-of-kin.”

“What kind of system would you call it,” Gregory asks, setting his half-empty beer aside, “where the properly legal thing to do is to hand over a child to the man who murdered his father for possession of a money-laundering empire?”

“The one where you follow the letter of the law over the spirit.”  Ward slides down off the counter, her sockfeet making almost no sound on the kitchen tiles.  “The one where you draw a line between ‘justice’ and ‘vengeance’, and that line is whether or not you’re sanctioned by a governing body.  I don’t get paid to speculate on the law, Turner.  I just get paid to do my job.”

Gregory follows her into the living room, because that’s where she goes, and frowns severely as she leans down to kiss Alex on the side of his head.  “G'night, sprog.  Keep an eye on that nutter for me, yeah?”

Alex opens a sleepy eye.  “Going?”

“I’ll be back,” she says.  Gregory watches them with a dull ache in his stomach that he struggles to identify the source of.

Then he remembers the part where he was shot, and chalks it up to that.

At the door, Ward says, “I’ll give you a call at fourteen-hundred.  Unless you dummy up some adoption papers get a bigger flat, it will most likely be foster care.  But it won’t be his uncle.”

Her coat is on, and her boots, and her hand is on the knob.  “You didn’t laugh at my joke,” she says feebly.

You aren’t funny, Gregory wants to say.  “Where are you staying?”  He asks instead.  He’s not sure why.

“Seeing as your couch is otherwise occupied and I’ve an early morning,” she smiles crookedly.  “Probably the Motel off ninety-fifth.”

He knows her eyes are a muddy gray-brown-green, but they look colorless in the smear of bleed-through light from the mood lamps a room over.  She’s actually a bit shorter than he is.  He always forgets.  He can never get a good read on that sort of thing when her bulky personality fills up every inch of conceivable space—as though it would be impossible to look down at her.

“I hear they have a nice continental breakfast,” Gregory says at last.

“Cheers,” Ward replies.

*

He does not rest well.  While normally a fairly heavy sleeper, and secure within the trappings of his own home, it seems as though every small sound wakes him.  Alex sleeps through the night, but something about the water pressure shifting in the pipes when there is another body breathing in your office puts you on edge.

Gregory gives in around five-thirty, sets out clothing for the day, showers, dresses, and then sets out clothing for Alex.   He figures seven is a good time for a child to wake up, and has an approximation of breakfast—cereal and orange juice and half a bran muffin—set out around six-fifty-five.  The couch blankets rustle at six-fifty-seven, and after a couple of minutes in the bathroom, it’s five after the hour by the time the kid wanders into the kitchen.

“Hungry?”  Gregory asks, gesturing to the food without look up from his tablet.

“Yes.  Thank you,” Alex says.  He stirs the corn flakes for a few moments before digging in.  Belatedly, Gregory hopes that he isn’t allergic to the soymilk.

“Your clothes for today are on the counter.  Are you in school?”

Alex glances at the washed and folded stack of socks and a shirt and jeans, and then looks back at his cereal.  “Homeschooled.”

Gregory takes a careful bite from his half of the bran muffin, minding the crumbs.  “That makes things simpler.  Year two?”

Alex nods, then bumps his orange juice a little when he reaches for it.  It doesn’t spill, but Gregory’s thumb twitches reflexively, accidentally closing his browser window and the seven working tabs contained therein.  Resolutely, he sets the device aside.

“If you can try to summarize what you’re currently studying in what subjects,” he starts, grabbing a mechanical pencil and one of several spare notebooks from his office.  But Alex starts to look a little panicked, so Gregory stops.  He waits.

“What does ‘sumrize’ mean,” Alex hazards.

Gregory pauses.  “It means to tell someone about a thing,” he says carefully, reducing as he goes, “without spending too much time doing it, but still making sure you cover the important parts.”

“Okay,” Alex says.  “I don’t know what ‘subjects’—”

“‘Kinds of things’,” Gregory supplies.

Alex pauses to process this.  “Tell you about the kinds of things I’m, um, learning about?”

“Yes.”

“We mixed colors for face-painting.”  Alex’s face visibly relaxes.  “I can do green from yellow and blue, and orange from yellow and red.”  Then, softly, he adds, “Dad put whiskers on my face and I was a fox.”

“Okay,” Gregory says, neatly sidestepping the trauma as best he can because you have to start with what you can handle.  “What else?”

“Writing numbers to fifty.  Telling time.  I can tell time if it’s just an o’clock, but not with the minutes yet.”

“How about reading?”  Gregory asks.

“Sometimes,” he says grudgingly.  “But mostly just copying the alphabet.”

“Thank you.  Just a moment.”  Gregory pulls up the browser on his tablet again and does a quick search.  After a few minutes, he finds suitable PDF files and sends them to his office printer.  He clears away the dishes, wipes down the table while Alex watches him bleakly, and retrieves the worksheets.

“This first one is basic addition.  I want you to try to work through these the best that you can.  Come get me when you’re finished and I’ll check your work.”

“Okay,” Alex says.  “Am I going to live with you now?”

Gregory goes still, but only for a moment.  “I don’t know yet,” he says.  “But you aren’t going back on the streets.  So you’ll probably be here until we can figure out something more permanent.”  He glances uneasily at Alex’s small, round, nervous face.  “Are you agreeable to this?”

“What does ‘greeable’ mean?”

“‘Agreeable’ means ‘okay’.”

Alex looks at him with big, blue eyes.  He starts to smile, like someone has told him he’s about to get a toy, but also like someone has told him that several times before and the toy never appeared.  “Yes.  I’m agreeable.”

*

By ten after ten, Alex has demonstrated that he is consistent with basic mathematics, even if Gregory sees him counting on his fingers roughly half the time.  Satisfied that his progress is appropriate for his age, Gregory moves on to reading.

“This is stupid,” Alex huffs after they’ve spent a good fifteen minutes cutting out single-sided alphabet cards from an emergency stash of cardstock.  The Internet had informed Gregory that hand-eye coordination is an integral part of a child’s development, so he’d shown Alex how to carefully cut along the dashed line using the kitchen shears.  They were less than perfectly effective in Alex’s small hands, but at the end of it they had twenty-six letters that were, if not tidy, entirely functional.

“Reading is not stupid,” Gregory corrects.  “Reading is the mechanism by which we exchange knowledge and ideas with people who are not present or, in many cases, living.”

Alex looks at him.

“If we’re out of cereal,” Gregory says reasonably, “you can write it down on the notepad magnet and we’ll remember the next time we go out.”

“I can tell you to write it down,” Alex says.

“I might not be home.  I might be at the office.”

“But I can’t reach the notepad.”

“I can move it down so you can,” Gregory says, steadfast in his calm.  “That’s not the point.”

“It’s too hard,” Alex huffs, his shoulders hunched into his small body.

They sit in silence, Gregory looking at Alex and Alex looking at the loosely-combined letters for cat in front of him.

“It’s very important,” Gregory tells him gently.  “It’s okay that it’s difficult now, but it won’t always be.  These three letters make up kuh, eh, and tuh.  See, ay, and tee.”

Explain, Simplify, Repeat is a good strategy, Gregory thinks, because when you break something down to its base parts, it’s easy to show how they can be combined.  “All you need to do is say the sound when I point to the letter, and if you can’t remember, repeat after me.”  He points to the letter C.

Alex leans over the letter, studying it very seriously.  After a beat, he opens his mouth.  Then he closes it without a sound, his face folding in on itself.

“Alex,” Gregory tries.

Alex starts to cry.

Completely at a loss, Gregory does the first thing that comes to mind—he removes the offending letters and places them with the rest in a tidy, if uneven, pile.  Then he gets Alex a glass of water.

“It’s okay,” he says stiffly, patting the kid’s shoulder.  “It’s really okay.”

Alex wipes his nose, leaving a shiny streak of snot on his arm.  “Dad reads with me.”

Read, Gregory corrects subconsciously, feeling sick.  “Let’s do something else for awhile, all right?”

Alex nods wetly.

One of the math worksheets is color-by-number—odds are yellow and evens are green.  Gregory doesn't have any crayons, naturally, but he has highlighters.

He explains the rules.  Then he says, “I'm going to make a phone call.”

“‘Kay,” Alex replies, getting to work.

In his office, Gregory uses the secured landline to dial a number he hasn't quite forgotten yet.

“Leicester Associated Counseling, Ashley speaking.”

“Is Devorah available?”

There is a brief pause, but whether Ash recognizes his voice or is simply checking the appointment calendar is beyond knowing.

“She appears to be.  If she's out of the office, feel free to leave a message.”

“Thank you.”

The line transfers, and Devorah answers on the second ring.  She answers the Ash question right off the bat:  “Hi Gregory.  What can I do for you this time?”

Her tone reaches for boredom, maybe abruptness, but falls markedly short.  Instead she sounds eagerly aloof, intensely disinterested; Gregory sighs, quietly, through his nose.

“I have a professional referral,” he says, emphasizing the pertinent word.  “An individual that may require grief counseling.”

“Well, they are free to make an appointment at any time.”

“The individual is a minor,” Gregory explains, ignoring the intentional obtuseness of her response.  “And the counseling session requires the same considerations as the Sandovar and O’Malley cases.”

“Off-book and open-note, you mean,” she says disapprovingly.  “You know this is an ethics violation.”

“My apologies,” Gregory grates out.  “I assumed the arrangement was mutually beneficial.  I’m sorry to have wasted your time.”

“Well, hang on,” she says quickly.  “It’s been ages.  Do you want to grab coffee or something?”

“If you’re not interested in a freelance commission at this time,” he enunciates clearly, “I can’t imagine what we would have to discuss.”

“Jesus christ, you haven’t changed at all.”  She tries to mask it with anger, but her disappointment seeps through like oil rising to the surface of a lake.  “You never call to catch up or ask how my parents are doing, it’s always to beg some favor for whatever disreputable—”

Excuse me,” Gregory interrupts, finally losing his patience, “if those favors that paid for your South Beach vacation home were such a burden.  If you don’t want to work with me, I’m not going to wheedle you into it.”  There’s silence on the line, so Gregory presses on. “But don’t act like it was such a difficult thing to do your regular job for two or three sessions in exchange for half a year’s salary.”

Quiet stretches over the line.  Gregory seethes.

“It really is an ethics violation,” she finally repeats, but her tone is chastened.

“My clients don’t sign any HIPPA forms and you don’t keep any paperwork on file,” he says, at a loss as to why they’re still rehashing this, “ergo, they are not really your patients.  You’re a counselor in name only.  I’m basically paying you to talk to him for an hour and tell me what he said.  I could hire a prostitute to do the same thing.”

She gasps sharply.  “I can’t believe this.”

“You and me both,” Gregory says.  “Enough.  I have other calls to make.”

She doesn’t say anything right away, and Gregory has the receiver halfway to the cradle.  But he irritably brings it back to his head at the sound of her voice:

“...said we could still be friends.  But you only call when you need something.”

“You asked if we could be friends,” Gregory corrects, “and I didn’t say no.”

“Well, maybe you should have,” she says bitterly.  “Are all of your interpersonal relationships goddamn business transactions?”

“Yes.”  Gregory has never understood the point of arguing with an ex.  There’s nothing to resolve; it’s only exhausting, and nothing changes, because the relationship is over.

Devorah sighs.  “I guess I should feel flattered that you thought of me at all.”  She breathes loudly out of her mouth in rounded puff.  “Fine.  I was looking at yachts the other day anyway.  What’s this kid’s name?”

*

Gregory spends an hour doing yoga in his living room in front of the television, then works on some basic in-place cardio for another twenty minutes.  He alternately dreads and looks forward to summer: nothing is ever quite as good as running outside, but no amount of indoor cardio ever prepares him for the first rough weeks of jogging season.

Alex is with Devorah, who managed to get him in around one-fifteen.  It’s now two-forty-five, and half out of the shower with one foot on the bathmat, Gregory is flooded with panic as he realizes that Ward hasn’t called.

The last time she didn’t call, he’d found her in a hospital in Beirut checked in as the Lebanese equivalent of a Jane Doe.  It had taken six hours.

Three broken ribs, a collapsed lung, a dislocated shoulder, and a falsified marriage certificate later, Gregory had been able to direct her care and transport home.

That had been three and a half years ago.  She’d stopped giving him her burner numbers after that.

Methodically and thoroughly, Gregory dries his hair and his face, then the rest of his body from the shoulders down.  He walks out into the living room with his towel around his waist, and stares at the clear plastic tupperware full of hand-cut alphabet letters.  Then he stares at his phone.

There are strict rules in place regarding any and all communication with Ward when she’s in the field.  The rules all boil down to the same thing:  Gregory is to do nothing until he hears from her.

He is not to call her cell, which she does not carry in the field anyway, in case she has been compromised.

He is not to email any of her official or shell accounts, in case she has been compromised.

He is not to contact her known associates, in case she has been compromised.

He is not to go looking for her, because she is a skilled professional and he is a glorified accountant whose job is to make the money look good on paper.  Her words.

Gregory is half-dressed in creamy gray slacks and a casual white polo when his phone rings, and he fumbles with the screen lock.

It’s Devorah.  His frustration rolls and dips in his chest, sucking up the almost-relief he almost-felt.  “He’s ready to be picked up,” she says soberly.  “Do you want to talk now, or.”

“I’ll see you in fifteen minutes,” he says, checking the charge on his phone.  Eighty-two percent.  Sufficient.  “We can get coffee.”

“You are such an asshole.”

CHAPTER TWO

Ten years ago, when Gregory was twenty years old, he met Ward on a money laundering op.

After graduating early from a London-based exchange student program, his studies focused in accounting and finance, one of his instructors had taken him out to dinner with a woman named Sibyl Boardman:  sixties, meticulously colored hair, plum-and-gold luncheon dress, understated but expert makeup.  Gregory and Professor Donaghy had been fifteen minutes early, but Sibyl had already been waiting for them.

She wasted no time explaining, in extremely general terms, that it was difficult to get into her line of work when you were just starting out.  That there was money to be made for someone who was skilled, detail-oriented, and discreet, but that it was an entirely referral-based business, and bringing in an unknown was a risk to your own reputation.

She’d looked hard at Gregory’s face and asked, “How would you compensate for that kind of risk, Mister Turner?’

Gregory, whose hands were tidily folded on the white linen tablecloth and whose suit jacket was peerlessly without wrinkle, said, “I have made an anonymous donation in the sum of twenty-two thousand pounds to the Southwark Heart-in-Hand nonprofit.  I understand that it is difficult to maintain administrative and operating costs in a fledgling charitable organization, but I hope that my modest contribution will help support the initial fundraising endeavors.”

Sibyl glanced accusingly at Professor Donaghy, who was halfway into his second scotch ale.  “That was textbook, you filthy cheat.”

“I am no such thing,” Donaghy smiled, skimming the spirits menu.  “Mister Turner is well-researched and extremely thorough.  Did you know that he achieved a higher score in my class than the coursework technically permits?”

“Technically,” Gregory said, “I was taking advantage of the loophole that did permit it.”

“Ah, you’ll have to forgive me for assuming that a student couldn’t be in two places at once,” Donaghy replied indulgently.  “Right down to keynote summaries, pamphlets from the respective guest lectures, and eye-witnesses that verified your attendance when I called around to ask.”  He paused to order whiskey tea.  After the server left, he continued, ”Dare I say I was badly startled when it was confirmed that you did in fact appear on the security footage at both auditoriums.”

“Anderson’s discussion of off-shore tax shelters was fascinating,” Gregory replied, “But I feel that Henry’s analytics-based stock market system had broader application potential.”  Sibyl had only laughed, and snatched the spirits menu from Donaghy’s loose hand.

Three weeks and a fifty-thousand pound contract later, Gregory had Sibyl’s shell charity poised to accept donations of all stripes that, once processed, would appear perfectly legal on paper.  It had become self-sustaining, acquired two part-time employees, and begun collaborating with a steadily-growing group of above-board organizations to provide resources for the homeless, the elderly, and the substance-abusive.  Each of these were, in turn, tastefully and with detail extolled on a sleek new website.

A month after that, Sibyl brought in a large sum of money that Gregory dutifully massaged into Southwark Heart-in-Hand’s coffers.  Then she asked him to oversee distribution of the funds, which took just seven hours for four recipients.

Deep into the following Tuesday morning, in the upstairs office of a corner store off Lynton that Sibyl had chosen for purposes of obscurity, Gregory handed out the relevant paperwork to the three seated individuals—Melissa Spiegel, P. Eric Baum, and Adam Graves—and to the final one, W. Ward, who was leaning against the wall near the door.

Thin and sallow with sleeplessness under a green beret, she’d glanced briefly at the collection of receipts, letterhead, work orders, and email correspondence printouts accompanying her bank transfer slip.  Then she’d simply nodded and turned back to her phone, resuming a loud and obnoxious game that had grated on Gregory’s nerves for half an hour.

He would later learn that Ward had a full six years of service under her belt, the most recent two on the leash of the SIS, and that she was in her mid-twenties.  Her presence on any bit of illicit business was always an indicator that it had the unofficial backing of the Crown.  It would make Gregory uneasy for the first few years, but offer an insulation he would come to rely on.

For twenty-three minutes, to the soundtrack of Ward’s loathesome phone, Gregory went over tax-appropriate paper trails, write-offs, obscure service slips, and the backdating program he was developing.  Commercially packaged as Disaster & Damage Refiling Software, it was available in an official capacity for recovering financial documentation lost to flood, fire, and other catastrophes that eliminated physical record-keeping.  It contained verification software that synced up with thousands of banking and finance institutions to validate purchase sums, transaction dates, and merchant or independent transfers.

A separate key, which was not available commercially and which Gregory kept on several secure, offline external drives, falsified them.

When he finished, Baum asked a couple of pointed tax questions, which Gregory was happy to answer.  He briefly explained interest benefits to Spiegel, whose take was rolled into another nonprofit held by her personal LLC, Birmingham Limited, and by which she was officially employed and drew a sizeable salary.

Then Sibyl took over to clear up a couple of financing points for Graves, who had a tendency to haggle, and Gregory’s part was done.

He stepped into the hallway to extract a drink from the ancient vending machine, grateful for the spare change in his pocket—there was no cardreader—and drank about a third of the water with intent.  Then he turned back to the meeting room with the open bottle, and Ward materialized abruptly in front of him.

“Jesus,” Gregory snapped, almost spilling on both of them.  “Personal space?”

“Fine, thanks,” she said, looking carefully at his head as she set the tone for the entirety of their association.  “What miracle product are you using to keep your hair from falling out?  Mine turns to paper when I bleach it that white.”

“I wouldn't know,” Gregory said, his voice clipped.  “This is my natural color.”

Ward pinched her eyebrows together elaborately, making a show of her confusion. She gestured broadly with her left hand:  “But you're—”

“Mixed? Yes.  Genetic quirk.  Happens.  Now, if you'll excuse me,” he'd said, trying to move past her.

“Latino?”  She'd hazarded to his back, her accent strange over the Spanish syllables.

Seneca, he'd almost said out of habit, but instead he'd just said, “No.”

After the meeting, they left at intervals of fifteen minutes.  Sibyl went first, promising to contact him soon.  Gregory would be second to last, and he took the time to admire the hefty new balance in his own bank account.

“That woman,” Ward had remarked, mostly to Eric but loudly enough everyone else, “is an absolute masterpiece of ass.  She single yet?”

“I think she’s still with that Irish guy,” Adam said.

“Pity,” Ward shrugged.  “Wasn’t there an Arab?”

“Different guy,” Eric said.  “But I think she’s still with him, too.”

“Do tell,” Ward said with interest, glancing at her watch.  “I have a few minutes.”

“Could you please refrain from acting like a predatory lesbian,” Gregory griped, his eyes on his phone.  “It is extremely disrespectful.”

“Oh, darling, no,” Ward laughed at him, delighted.  “I never bring politics into the bedroom.”

Gregory stares at her, incredulous, as she starts toward the door.  She gives them all a little wave.  “Well, that’s me.  Until next time.  Ta!”