Author: Elliott Silver (email@example.com)
Summary: The destination is never what is most important, or most dangerous; it is the journey.
From an uncompromising darkness that held her hostage, only to be forced back into the ruthless night that bound her prisoner.
As crippling as the gripping uncertainty, unknowing of not remembering.
She raised her head uncertainly, without due warning, and spasms of pain flared precariously along her spine, sending waves of agony crashing into her brain, frightening chills.
Chest completely unclothed, stripped of its apparel like rank. Fingers came away sticky, matted, slimy, from her temple.
Red in this darkness.
Slipping, losing her footing, falling.
Into the abyss.
Whispery tendrils of voice, festinate swish of nylon, floorboards tattling pressure points.
Voices, close, deeply masculine, hooked and snared in contention.
White pain swarming, monopolizing, threatening.
A silenced weapon, jetstreams of air. And two ominous thuds, like planes collapsing from the tropospheres.
Footsteps, two, one running away, one at her side. Hands, prying at her neck, tangled in her wet hair. Her body rolled over, her face lifted from the floorboards, and a moment of complete unknowing, of white, blinding, narrowing unconsciousness.
"Kill me," she choked, as the whirlpool, maelstrom inside her head rallied to drown her. "Save me."
And then nothing but whitewater echoing, echoing.
It was a world of extremes.
There was dark, and there was light.
There was cold, and there was warmth.
There was pain, and there was no pain.
There was motion and speed, and there was stillness.
There was panic, and there was surrender.
There was life, and there was fight.
There was black, and there was white.
There was heaven, somewhere, and there was hell.
Consciousness emerged in small parcels, doled out to avoid sensory overload. Floating voices, a radio maybe. Rasping curry of fraying wool on skin. The underlying scent of sweat, and lingering gun-oil.
Blood. White pain. Blinding darkness.
Raw edges of her knuckles, torn, flayed. Thick, thick clumps flaking off her fingers. Analgesic silt, decaying on her tongue.
Twisting, twitching, the tendon behind her left knee, irreversibly knotted. Wet. Wet fire. Burning. Burning. White pain.
The inventory of semi-consciousness. Metal grating on macadam. The abrasive fabric of a car seat gnawing her cheek. The volatile pungency of gasoline. The ignition, keys like windchimes.
The twanging snap of the brake releasing and the jumble of shocks that needed replacing a couple thousand miles ago.
White pain, without question or comprehension, behind her eyes.
Baffled by the concoction of stillness, she woke.
Lulled into rhythmic non-entity for so long with chemical cocktails, her first impression was unforgiving.
No prince in sight, Sleeping Beauty.
Alone, decompressed into a situation she could neither remember nor appreciate.
Her first raw spurt of unclouded emotion wasn’t fear, or even pain, but rather disgust.
What the fuck.
Her eyesight unfurled as the blood congealed in her head slowly, so slowly, traveled elsewhere.
Motel room, tastefully decorated in Early American Wal-mart.
Just where was Martha Stewart when you really needed her?
She flexed a wrist experimentally and was surprised by the teeth-clenching burst of pain. The cold, still air was filled with the hauntingly familiar patchwork melody of handcuffs, chaining her to the dented metal bed frame. Apparently, she wasn’t the first to be in these circumstances. Briefly, a metal flash of her hands pinned, pulled behind her. As she had sprawled on the backseat of a car, unconscious, or too damn close to it.
The metal was warm, nearly malleable, so she and the bracelets had been acquainted for some time.
Dressed in her thin Centre dress pants and a nondescript loden wool sweater, something men’s and L.L. Bean. Not hers, something she’d never be caught dead in.
Wrong choice of words, there.
Felt thisclose to dead, worse, felt mutilated. Didn’t even bother to catalogue, inventory, or separate each distinct agony. Too many.
Thoughts were forming and reforming in her head and she didn’t like any of them.
Just what the hell was going on?
In the back of her mind, the patchwork pieces of memory, distorted and inverted, muddled together. Flashes, interference and static, jammed frequencies she could neither access nor destroy.
She closed her eyes. Focus.
She had been kidnapped.
Beaten, too. If her head and ribs were any indication, pretty badly.
Who thought she was worth this much trouble? Silencers, and painkillers, and unpatched highways, backroads?
The door opened with a puff of cool air and was shoved closed over carpet. The solid, unmistakable presence, strict, uncasual, alert movement, of a masculine body. Her captor.
In the curtained complete darkness, hateful vindictive little bitch so it was, anonymous.
"Awake?" That voice, clipped to a bare minimum of words, communication, human contact. The simple familiarity chilled her more than if it had been a complete stranger.
So distinctively male. Polished, yet invisibly rough. Invisible, and deadly. What you couldn’t see could hurt you. She wasn’t sure from where the thought emerged. Something, someone she should know. Yet didn’t know at all.
A moment of impressive silence and epic proportions.
"Who are you?"
"My company will pay for my return. Whatever you want."
This time a dark laugh, jagged and blistering.
More silence. Footsteps on thin carpet.
A flash of headlights pierced the sliver of window.
"Lyle." Simple word, really, yet not all the epithets and curses in the world could have echoed harsher.
The face, hard with unkind shadows and stubble and exhaustion. Looming, pure physical intimidation.
"You fucked up so big this time you won’t even need me to kill you."
Her handcuff rattling on the railing.
A deep, dark preoccupied silence, unhurried.
"I said, you screwed the pooch, Lyle."
"Only if you consider Brigitte a bitch."
There was no humor in the statement, laid bare. Cut the shit.
She hated this, hated being trapped with him in the middle of nowhere with no power. And he knew that. Damn him.
"What do you want?"
A moment later.
"What do you want to know?" he asked, dragging a light shirt over his head and settling onto the other bed.
Did she really want to know anything? "Where are we?"
"South Dakota, I think."
"Where are we going?"
This time, an unhappy pause. "Because you’re the only one they want."
Disbelief, overwhelming. "Let me get this straight. You stole me from the Centre, to sell me to another organization? And you don’t think the Centre will come after me, seek retribution? What kind of a fucked-up plan is that?"
He let the silence reel out, tensile and volatile between them. Almost magnetic.
But he said nothing.
She woke uncertainly, to the concussion of flesh against flesh.
That hard squish, the rupture and fracture and scrape of skin and cells and hard, uncompromising bone.
Parker turned sideways, wiping sleep like sweat from herself, towards the crawlspace between the two twin beds, ignoring the brutal kinking stiffness of her muscles.
In the sparse halogen-heated shadows of the highway, Lyle was pressed against his bed on the ragged carpet, legs splayed, arms flailing as he fishtailed at the hands of their unknown intruder.
The bedsprings creaked.
The intruder turned, bored with and left his prey, to loom over her.
Her name, erased so easily.
It wasn’t a question. Or an appeal. No options, no prayers.
Described the Centre perfectly.
He moved, a fraction, maybe less, of an inch. Maybe he didn’t move at all.
She rolled and nearly somersaulted right, her left arm still bound cruelly to the bed. Injured as she was, it was slow, too slow. He caught her easily on the downstroke, as she lay, for the scantiest of seconds, on her stomach on the thin, patched sheets of the bed. His fist slammed down on the bunched muscles behind and below her left knee, somehow knowing the existing damage there.
Dark, dripping, blinding pain seared her and she curled upwards like the runners of a child’s rockinghorse.
That motion threw her off-kilter, her equilibrium skewered and snagged and shorn. She thumped down ungracefully to the floor, nearly on top of Lyle’s blood and sweat-wet body, only to fall backwards, narrowly avoiding the intruder’s fist as he missed and careened into the plywood nightstand.
He reared back, certain to thrust back at her in blind-numbing pain. Certain, deliberate that she not walk from this room.
She fired three times in precise succession. There was no hesitation. One, two, three. The trigger was smooth and cold, the kickback jolting, and his blood lava-hot as it spattered her in human fallout debris.
Instinct was brutal. A cold, deadly, dangerous thing that kept you alive.
Like knowing without reason that Lyle slept with a gun under the pillow.
And not knowing how she knew.
The body sagged in slow motion and crumpled on her sheets.
Before she could move, Lyle was there, next to her, close. A glistening, seeping cut etched ragged against the polished line of his cheek, his fingers red wet as they reached for her.
"Don’t touch me."
Animalistic panic, cold and low, lashing and striking out raw and harsh like a copperhead. In its unusual violent intensity, it scared them both.
After a second he rose, rising and righting his bruised equilibrium. He left her, left her to feel him, his absence, and although not know it, want it, him, back. To compensate against the stinging burning biting attack and the need to be all right. Stripping the cheap acrylic comforter from the bed, Lyle shrouded their corpse so it wouldn’t bleed all over the room and provide enough evidence for forensics to party with.
His face, emotionless in the dim murkiness of the cheap room, as he freed her from the bed. Not a single touch, kiss, of skin. Rather a close awareness that she could feel, was meant to feel, that it could have just as easily, maybe even more easily, been him, de-intestined and dead.
She stood and righted herself on her own. As always.
She caught a glimpse of them in the cracked mirror as they fled.
Bad luck, she thought fleetingly of the spidery maze. A flash of startling recognition, significance. Then gone.
Gone, smoky mirror images.
The parking lot shaded in early morning drizzling shadows, still sleeping, best left sleeping.
He turned on her.
And unlocked her other wrist. The handcuffs fell into his hands.
"Get a car. Four-wheel drive. Now!" The last to spur her into motion, a subconscious reminder, subliminal message, that danger was out and about them.
He yanked her hand in front of her face, still clutching his Desert Eagle.
It was a gun made specifically for killing.
"If anyone – anyone – tries to touch you. Kill them." The last so cold, and jagged and protective.
Hefting the body onto his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, Lyle jogged through the maze of 18-wheelers and semis. The dull, moist thump of a dumpster. Spurred into action by his urgency, she fled too.
The motel didn’t offer a dealer’s selection. The first four cars she tried, four wheel drive be damned, were securely locked, the fifth open but without keys, and finally, a late-model Cherokee with keys under the driver’s side floor mat.
Trust could kill you. Or set you free.
She hoisted herself up and jammed the ignition.
"Who was he?" her voice controlled. Meant business.
She had waited long enough, waited until the miles and windshield wipers had lulled them both into a forced calm, until the adrenaline had receded, until the blood on their hands had dried and begun to flake off with motion.
Lyle shifted his head her way, and for the first time she really noticed the ugly long slice along his cheekbone, coagulated and dark under the cloud cover.
There was no hesitation as he answered, no doubts, for the first time in a very long time, that she couldn’t handle the truth. "The one that got away."
He said it as if it meant nothing. Maybe only too soothe her, to dull the conscience of that beautiful brutal instinct. Maybe to thank her.
But there was blood on her hands.
And not real. Her hands on the wheel, clean, pale. Skeleton bone and skin.
White pain, again. In her mind, static.
"I can’t stop this." In his voice, regret.
Thunder so quiet, rumbles of the stomach of the sky. Hunger, deeper and more complicated than that.
This was officially the single most insane, reckless, stupid thing she’d ever done. Not to mention life endangering. She could escape, was perfectly able to escape. All it would take was subduing this one man to do it. But she wasn’t going to.
Because, in the middle of nowhere and not yet light, Lyle, of all people, understood – and took her hand, bloody or not, in his.
They collapsed half a day later and sooner to their ultimate destination.
Sleep had swept her away far too easily to be simply benevolent. Ulterior motives.
The memory trailed back slowly, as devastating as smoke before a burning fuse.
She remembered the blood first.
Thick, like snot, like warm rubber cement, trickling over her fingertips. A red waterfall.
The antique mirror in her foyer resonating into strobes and shards with her impact. Falling to the hardwood floor, dazed but vengeful.
Hell-bent on retaliation for the unsuspected onslaught.
There had been three.
Suddenly siphoning down her throat, her lungs. Coating like lard, paper machier.
A concrete hand crushing her windpipe as she tried to cough, to regurgitate, to stop drowning in herself.
Eating herself alive.
Slick on her wrists, as she dodged and twisted but not her own. Hands wet, painted with red gloves. She’d managed a few good shots, gotten someone else’s nose. But bound down, pinned down, with a barbarous strength she could neither defy nor deny.
Splayed on the cool floor, slivers of splinters sparring her back. Two, manacling her wrists over her head. And another.
Outnumbered, she fought.
A savage blow to her temple, flaring numb white pain. Vaguely, the rent of her Gucci silk shirt, shredded from her body.
Whispered voices, in conference.
"… have some fun…"
"…not in the rules…"
"… only to kill her…"
Wet, tried to move, unable. Grunts of disfavor with the motion, eager, vicious breath strung in pants.
Feral jabs to her ribs, blowing the air from her lungs. Pummels as she gasped and retched.
Flashes of light behind her eyes with each punch until it was one continuous stream of incandescence, luminous and phosphorescent. Until she could no longer tell the difference between contact and impact, whisper and scream, bruise and blood.
Darkness, and light.
She woke uncertainly, seething wet and shivering.
The room swaying in dizzy movement around her, a droplet descending to her lip. It stung. Sweat, not blood.
A movement in shadow, tensile. Waiting. Knowing.
He sat down on the edge of her bed, close, her knees drawn up to her chest, the covers flung headlong.
Outside, thunder, like ghostly gunshot, erupted, perforated the heavens.
She jumped, just slightly.
The air drenched with ozone. Full-blown intensity.
Blazes of lighting, far-flung flashes of illumination.
"You were there."
She wasn’t accusing. Not yet.
"You stopped them?"
She nodded, that curt little bob that was all her own patent. Somewhere, the whispered whistle of a silencer. New clip of ammo. More shots. Overkill.
"Going to rape me."
No answer. But she knew.
"And kill me." The Centre, behind this from the start. Incomprehensible. Almost. Raging white noise, like white pain. Too much silence, lack of motion, action, human association. Touch.
Classified, so far down deep in the bayou depths of his heart, wherever he’d learn to hide it.
Trust and truth, so much demolished.
His voice, nettles and vodka, choked and whispered. When she thought he’d say, or relent, nothing at all.
"Was too late. Didn’t know until too late. And blood, so much blood. Didn’t know if you were alive. Didn’t move. Didn’t speak. Couldn’t find a pulse at first."
Talking fast. Rushed. As if reviewing notes. Methodical, trying to keep it unpersonal.
And, like her, failing.
"Beat up bad. Turned you over. Eyes opened. You – " A muffled choke, smoothed out. "You said, ‘Kill me or save me’."
He didn’t have a perfect body, she realized. Muscled, but lean, very lean. Almost too lean. Street wise. And marked. Gouged and gored, sliced and scissored, punctured and pierced. So much hurting.
There were three bullet holes, each prominently displayed. Open wild scar tissue, never fully healed. One through an indent in his ribs, another splattered across his upper hip, and the last jagged, shrapnel drilled through his shoulder.
"Jesus, Lyle. Why let me believe – not tell me?" she asked. "Why let me hate you?"
His eyes, haunting, hard as rock candy, cold as ice.
"Isn’t that easier to believe? Better?"
She reached out for him.
She never wondered why.
"Don’t touch me." His voice, low, still, tense.
Her words, hateful and panicked, reflected, infected, back on her.
Their arc of safety.
And if it shattered…
Her fingers slid over his, took them together, as he supported his weight on her bed. There was an indiscriminate movement, a shiver perhaps. A direct intake, deliberate inhale, of the stale room air.
Outside, the wind, discontented with its current direction and onslaught, changed course, slapping and prying at the curtained window. Nature could metamorphose with such abandon.
"Which one is mine?"
Her voice, slurred by the storm and all cut glass.
Things happened so fast. In an instant. In a heartbeat. Irreversible things. Indelible things.
His other hand lifted and seized hers, introducing it to his shoulder, the scar, the shrapnel, the inflicted damage.
Heat, vicious and wild, between them.
If they were going to run, they were going to run together, not away.
Even ice melted. Given the right circumstances.
His skin, skid-damp with toboggan runners of sweat. The prickling rhythms of his heart, just beneath her fingertips.
The rain, the storm, the pagan beat of their hearts accelerating. Tonight.
A groan deep in his throat as she brushed the ridged skin of the scar. His eyes, tempest and torrent and turbulent, wide open and wild.
"Kill me now, Parker. Or save me."
Lighting. One Mississippi. Two Miss – detonation. Right overhead.
"Save each other," she whispered.
Again lightning. One M –
Movement between shadow and shadow like the mad rush of Christmastime. The awful heady panic to seize lest there never be another chance.
As if by cheating death, to affirm life.
Together they watched the traitor grey rays surge through the cracks in the curtain. The last tendrils of the storm tucked around them, steady rain echoing against macadam.
His cell phone rang.
Unexpected, but not entirely unanticipated.
At the seventh ring, he left her and flicked it from his jeans pocket, discarded last night to the floor, to oblivion. To solace.
A gust of wind blew the downpour horizontal, screeching against the door, the covered window.
Nature metastasized, unlike humans, without consequence.
"I know. Damnit, I know." His voice, brittle. "We’ll be there. I said, we’ll be there."
Being pushed and not at all liking it. And not being much he could do, apparently.
"Around noon." His head, rocked violently on his shoulders, cracked and snapped, but his voice a low growl. "That’s not enough time. I can’t – " More emphasis. "No, give me – no. I can’t just vanish two fucking hours. It’s fucking not enough time."
The last bitter terms of surrender, for both of them. "Fine."
Clipped, like sails on a sun-splashed day, raked and ravaged. Raped.
He tossed the phone away, across the room. It clattered against something. Didn’t sound good.
He slid back in bed beside her. She could feel him debate and then damn it to hell and knot himself around her. If he were any good, he wouldn’t let go.
"We should get going."
Paradox, a whisper, the stillness of motion like the breakage of sound.
The downpour, a decrescendo into drizzle.
They stopped at a diplidated parking lot within the bounds of Yellowstone proper.
Almost there, she thought.
There was no earthly reason for the lot, and she guessed none for their stopping either. The cracked, upturned concrete, paler than macadam, for eight cars and a single dingy signpost that held the tattered remnants of a park map. There was no view, no grounds for laughing, dizzy-happy picnics, nothing. It was almost as if it was solely there for a last chance to turn around, to change your mind.
From here on out, here be monsters.
She sighed, yanking in the cold thin air.
Into disrepair and negligence, simply to prolong the inevitable.
She sat alone on a concrete parking bumper, needing to escape the tangible, claustrophobic intimacy of the Cherokee. Lyle kept his distance himself, trying to patch together directions on the torn map. She sat with her elbows resting on her bent knees, what little of her fingers dared poke beyond the extra-long sleeves of Lyle’s sweater and leather jacket laced together. It was the classic Parker family ‘bloody-leave-me-alone-I’m-thinking’ position.
As far as she could see, there was nothing but sparse evergreens cheerfully flaunting their winter hues against the stark canvas outlines of bare deciduous branches.
Wilderness. Remote, intangible, uncompromising.
Footsteps. Folding his legs, Lyle sat beside her.
"Tell me it was nothing more than a cheap fuck." Her voice, steely vehement.
His eyes scanned on the far leaf-bare trees, the hazed misty-moored mountain spires. A long time ago, he’d have a made a great scout, watching smoke signals and rescuing damsels in distress on the Oregon Trail. Maybe it wasn’t so long ago, after all. He pulled in a deep breath, for composure or thin air, or both. "Tell me that you’d go through all of this again … all of it … just to end here."
Parker pulled the tips of fingers to her mouth. Counter, but not attack.
They pulled like the tides at each other, drawing their eyes hostage. Unspoken communication, to turn and straddle the block so her legs slid beneath his and then bending upwards so that they hooked together as they had done in the night, joined, like a spider, a centaur, a Celtic knot – no beginning or end.
In an endless moment, a moment no words could ever accurately describe, their silence spoke volumes.
His hands, callous-rough warm as they spanned her cheeks. His lips, dry, chapped, still night-swollen, as they kissed her forehead and rested there for uncounted seconds, more uncounted, innumerable sorrows. And then their foreheads pressed together, as if sealing the gesture between them.
If only, world enough and time.
His head dropped to the niche of her shoulder, home, settled there, and she tucked in against him, molding, melding, mending.
The ‘road’ was actually more of a path. Somewhere umpteen thousand feet up in these colossal mountains, someone had seen fit to carve out a semblance niche of civilization. A fascinating civilization bare of strip malls and strip joints, ATMs and EBEs, luxury and opulence and life.
And it was cold. This was real, true cold, as opposed to the rare eastern winters she had known all her life. This was the kind of cold you could get lost in and die in and never have anyone find you.
She thought she knew that cold now.
She shivered. Locked securely into Lyle’s ultra-heavy, overly expensive leather jacket, she was snug.
But still not impervious to the cold silence.
She had once been.
Change, and hurtfully, unchange.
Branches clawed at the sides of the Cherokee, greenwood often fracturing into jagged spikes and spears as they tracked ever upwards. The four-wheel drive gouging into the half-frozen gravel-mud by the drizzle they had nearly driven out of, somehow, some way, getting ahead of the storm.
The road opened into an alpine meadow with a breathtaking view and finally too soon they were there. Picnic tables and blackened grills were scattered about like pick-up sticks, waiting patiently for the onslaught of spring tourists. Now, there was only them.
And the other car.
It was waiting for them, facing them.
The Cherokee smoothed into a stop and Lyle cut the ignition.
It was done.
In the stillness, their hands met. Without ever looking at each other, braided, banded.
"I can’t – "
She heard the words he couldn’t, didn’t dare say. ‘Keep you’.
She gripped his hand, but it was she who at last let go. Fragility, once more and as it should, must, be, was only an illusion.
They slid out of the tepid interior nearly simultaneously. The passenger of the other car came forward slowly, carefully alert. There was something familiar about him, but all that have been prey and become predators carry that, that Darwinian sixth sense.
That survival of the fittest.
Perhaps 30, maybe fortyish, dressed for hiking, in a pair of scuffed leather boots, grubby jeans, and a Brillo-blue wool sweater. A baseball hat shielded most of his face, though unkempt tuffs of blonde hair poked out indignantly.
This was it, then.
She and Lyle came to stand in front of the Cherokee’s grille, savoring its tendrils of warmth. The man strode the last few paces and stood before them. Under the day’s worth of stubble, there was familiarity.
"Welcome home, little sister." A radiant grin cracked large and achingly reassuring. The grin faded as it fell over Lyle. "You’re late."
He shrugged. Noncommittal.
"I don’t understand." As much to save them, to save herself, as anything else. She was a great diversion tactictist.
"I was the first," Angelo explained, refocused. Of anyone, he understood the present, the future.
Lyle interspersed. "To date, we’ve rescued over 200 people from the Centre. Geniuses, political prisoners, doctors, families, children … pretenders. And then we help them start a new life. Where the Centre will never find them."
She still didn’t understand. "Why me?"
A look, between two unlikely partners, more likely enemies. "Because you were a threat, easier canceled than dealt with."
"But you … how did you?"
Angelo smiled, patiently understanding. "They developed a cure."
"Lyle and him." He jerked his hand over his shoulder and she sidestepped to see.
Behind him, the driver’s side door spilled open in slow motion. She watched him get out and stand, tear the sunglasses away from his face in that look of pure disbelief that she had seen hundreds, maybe even thousands, of times, from the countless Centre security and surveillance tapes.
His hair was longer now, loose instead of slicked back, the planes of his face a little more defined than she’d remembered, the body tougher, harder.
But it was him. It was still him.
And she understood. As well as she was ever going to.
Angelo and Lyle exchanged briefcases, one with money, the other with information, both to good destinations, to good people. Something the Centre hadn’t been associated with in decades.
There was a new Triumvirate.
And she was going to be part of it. They wanted her to be part of it. It had taken near cancellation to do it, but now, together, they were going to fight.
Lyle turned to her, but there were no words.
All that needed had been said, all that hadn’t was meaningless.
Around them, the brittle barked branches whipped in the premonition of a storm system’s onslaught. It had followed them, easing ever westward, toward the setting sun. It was true, wasn’t it; nothing gold could ever stay.
There was a difference, she knew now. White pain was physical, blinding. Dark pain, emotions, was danger, drowning.
She slipped the slick black weight of his jacket from her shoulders and handed the warmth, her shelter from the cold, that biting aching killing cold, back, back to its original owner.
Their fingers brushing a last time, a last goodbye. The emotion darkly un-erased in his eyes, and so in hers. She almost reached up to touch him, to obliterate, to make him stay. Almost.
Instead she turned. Across the glen, Jarod in his ever still black-clad chivalry was shelling off his thick coat and holding it out. To her. An offering.
And she knew.
There was only one thing left to do.
She began walking.
Email Elliott Silver
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Disclaimer: The characters of "The Pretender" are not mine; they rightfully belong to NBC, MTM, and Pretender Productions, as well as the actors and actresses who give paper and ink a life and a voice. I am making no profit from these writings; imitation is the highest form of flattery.