Title: Her Aquitaine
Author: Elliott Silver
Author's Note: All any writer can say is that, "I tried to make it worth-while." I also tried to make it beautiful.
Summary: In 1122 AD, Eleanor of Aquitaine was born; by age 30, she had become queen of France, England, and the most powerful, intriguing, and beautiful woman in the world.
It had to be a dream because it was so beautiful - and it had never been beautiful before.
As far as he could see, there was nothing but water rippling like a mad jeweler's hands in a crate of faceted sapphires. Waves lapped indolently against the sandy beach where the county commissioners had dumped two tons of white sand along the shoreline and dredged out a boat ramp and several shallow docks. The grass along the graded slope was that orange-pea color of drought it only ever looked in America, with some patches dryer and browner than others for no particular explainable reason. There was a rowboat a quarter mile out with an old man and boy and two fishing poles, slouched back in the sun. Two families had filled a cluster of picnic tables and the sound of children's laughter was so pure it hurt to hear it.
They had no idea of the secrets buried beneath their feet.
A tiny redheaded girl in pigtails and a pink bathing suit shrieked laughter as she peeked out from behind his legs, and then ran off leaving sandy fingerprints on his black pants. Her parents eyed him suspiciously as they ran after her, their arms full of suntan lotion and folding chairs.
Jarod knew he didnít fit in among the overpowering smell of relish and burnt hot-dogs, not in the tight black tee shirt and pants, two days worth of stubble on his jaw, and blue-shaded sunglasses that had been so inconspicuous in Santa Monica or Vegas or Reno, wherever he had last been.
The brittle grass had taken root and grown in almost completely, so he guessed the buildings had been gone at least a year. They had probably used specially-planted C4 charges, instead of the messier, less-controlled dynamite, and then flicked the switch and watched the dark walls and floors collapse in on themselves, as if it was so neat and easy to erase the past.
Where the massive complex known as the Centre had once stood was now a conglomeration of late summer barbecues and sandcastle days of children splashing in the lake. It was all so pastorally happy; it was as if nothing bad had ever, or would ever, happen there.
He had never seen it coming, and in his heart, he wasn't sure if he had, whether he would have stayed to watch. After the adventure in Scotland, he had had quite enough of Centre politics and although he refused to leave the States, he had spent the months after that floating restlessly idle between Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, and Vancouver. He had thought about her, to be sure, but he had never attempted to make contact with her during those endless months because they had almost kissed each other on that island.
Jarod had thought too much about her lips because they were the color of hope on Carthis without the carefully applied layers of Chanel lipstick. And Jarod had wanted so desperately to taste that because she had always been the unfaltering one; and the way she carried her Glock and wore her lipstick was enough to make anyone think she could never break. She was brilliant and harmful like a drug and if she was falling apart, then it meant everyone else was too. And suddenly - too slowly - when he looked at her, her spine was curled all wrong and her vertebra clicked together and he pulled back and didn't kiss her after all.
Standing where he didn't have to guess the sublevel elevator had once stood, Jarod wasn't surprised when the recorded voice at Verizon informed him that her cell phone number was no longer in service.
Standing there, amid so much happiness and peace, he felt more alone than he had ever felt before. And he wondered how the girl no one had taken too seriously had ever managed to do the one thing he couldn't: destroy the place that they had grown up in.
Jarod wondered how Miss Parker had done the one thing he never thought possible: take down the Centre alone.
Title: Her Aquitaine --- PART 1
Author: Elliott Silver
When he finally caught up with her, it was a month later on the other side of the world, the places he never thought he'd go. And he was almost surprised she was really alive. After half a decade playing "I run, you chase," he had never realized how hard it was to find someone. And he knew when he saw her, striding across the Parisian street with the nerve to step out without bothering to check traffic, that she had let him find her.
As Jarod walked in through the massive doors facing west, ten feet, seven tourists, and two shrieking children after her, it didn't surprise him she had come to this place, flanked on both sides by the Seine, where Napoleon had crowned himself and then the ill-fated Josephine that brisk December morning in 1804.
She had always loved Paris; and he had always seen her as a martyr fit for Notre Dame.
She would go to the great cathedral in the old part of town, to the gargoyle spigots with their chiseled eyes and the spires that punctured the sky. She would go to the place where redemption was offered in candle wax and francs, where salvation was a graceful dream still.
She would go because Christian churches were forever built on pagan sites, and because this one was no different. Notre Dame had been built on the ruins of a Gallo-Roman temple to Jupiter, a Christian basilica, and Romanesque church devoted to St. Stephen.
She would go to a place built specifically to attract disbelievers of the old ways into the new folds. He thought she would go because she would believe in the old ways and old dreams until the end.
She was wearing no jacket, but leather gloves, a cashmere turtleneck that stretched across her high breasts, black pants that were just barely shiny, half a size too tight, and looked much too French, much too ridiculously expensive, and absolutely phenomenal. He was comforted by the fact that she still stubbornly wore four inch heels on her boots and had better balance than most people in bare feet.
Until he entered Notre Dame, he hadn't been inside a church in two years. But the carved wood of the door was heavy and the smell of the cathedral was dully sweet, and she went first.
Tourists crowded every which way and he lost her, almost walking past her until he recognized the curl of her spine bent over the tiers of glittering votaries all pools of red wax and reflection. Each tiny candle sat in its own wrought iron holder and thrust in the cracks and crevices were ex-votos: locks of children's hair, medals from old wars no one remembered - not even God, handwritten prayers in red lipstick on bar napkins. Twice in the time he stood there watching her, little bonfires sprung up when edges of the papers caught the tips of the wicks in the crosscurrents of air blown from the open doors. And there was the constant hiss of penitents being burned on the bottom of the wrist when they attempted to light new flames.
But she knelt there in the midst of the hubbub for salvation and flash pictures and when she raised her head, she saw him on the other side, picked a dying candle and lit her own.
Then she went to him as smoothly and easily as if there hadn't been two years and a missed kiss between them.
"Do you know what happened in the Revolution?" she asked and first she said it purposely in French - because she could be cruel that way - then standing up, translated to English. And of all the things he thought she might have said after all that time, French's Mustard stains and wet towels over what had once been over twenty sublevels, his unexpected presence in a foreign country where they ate pommes frites with mayonnaise, and a night on an island called Carthis where he had almost kissed her, that was not one of them.
Her hair was cut shorter than he'd ever seen it, sleek and brisk and curled out around her chin, and outside in the sunlight the color had reminded him oddly of Scarlet Oak acorns and the color of a match when it burnt red-black-brown before it blew out. She was slimmer than he had seen her too, and he bet it was because she didn't eat when she got busy or excited or angry and sometimes didn't eat for days, which was how she had originally turned to alcohol in the first place. But she was wearing Chanel again - her eyes were outlined and smudged in smoky charcoals; her lips were overglossed in a deep berry, maybe boysenberry or lingonberry or dark, sweet huckleberry - he would have to taste her to find out.
"There was once a great gallery of stone kings," the woman who had once been called Miss Parker told him and her voice was the heat of guttering candles and the sharpness of stained glass. Jarod couldn't tell if she was glad to see him.
She pointed from the inside out to the West Façade where they had entered, the side of the cathedral with the famous twin towers that were square because funds had run out to make them cylindrical - or, he thought, because God didn't want them pointing stupid human accusations in stone at Him.
"They pulled them down," she said as people mulled between them and around them, lighting little bonfires of sadness. "Because it was a revolution and because they could. They smashed the stone kings and handed out their heads like war trophies in the communes of Paris."
A child cried far off in the depths of the church; the howl rang plaintively throughout the vaulted ceilings as if it was the cathedral itself screaming in centuries' worth of pain, doing everything but bleed. Parker was obviously angry, for many reasons.
"The broken pieces of their bodies lay in front of the cathedral for three years before they were removed to the city coal yards."
A rail-thin teenager in a dirty trenchcoat stumbled into him and he toppled scarily close to the flames of the votaries. He heard rushed apologies like confession and the flash of a fluorescent rosary clutched in the child's white hands.
Parker watched him with deep slow eyes; the child - Jarod wasn't sure it was a boy or a girl - whispered furiously over the red candles, corduroy knees scraped at the floor and the words in French sounded like a bird beating against a cage, a window, in despair.
Parker slipped through the streams of milling tourists and sat in the middle of the rows of pews closest to the Chapel of the Seven Doors. Bright light shone in through the colored windows, made them glow in ways Jarod wasn't comfortable with - because the same light fell over her.
"Why?" he asked, but his question sounded more like "What did you do?" as he sat down next to her. On each side of them, the walls rose up like prison cells and Jarod realized, he had felt more at ease in the Centre, full of devils, liars, and true evil, than he felt sitting in the pew beside her.
"I waited five years for you, Jarod," she said and her voice was so calm that he knew she was so much angrier than he had thought. "I waited five years for you to help get me out, to help me escape the way I helped you. I was the one that got you out, remember? Head of Security, Jarod. I was the one that disarmed the cameras, created that diversion, let you slip out the back door while everyone was looking to the front. I got you out, but you never came back for me. You never came, Jarod."
The light of the stained glass poured down over her like molten wax from the votaries, like old blood, like that heavy burgundy velvet only kings ever wore.
"So you took down the Centre?"
"I waited two months after Carthis, Jarod," and he heard the anger rattling in her voice. "I waited 61 days for you - a call, an email, a newspaper clipping, a picture on TV, something, anything." Her eyes were on the rose window, circular swirl of sinners and saints. "After that, I couldn't wait any longer."
Tourists jittered up and down the aisleways, madly shuttering pictures and snapping flashes as if religion was nothing but magic and sleight of hand.
"Lyle tried to kill me once after Carthis, twice if you count the car bomb that didn't work, and between him, Raines, and the Africans, I would have been dead if I had waited any longer."
And all while he'd been solving surfing deaths on Oahu, investigating illegal grizzly bear taggings in the rugged wilderness of Aleutians. And when he'd had the choice between solving migrant worker fraud on a green bean farm or microchip copying in Silicon Valley, he'd spent the time unwisely developing an aversion to green beans.
"How did you do it?" Even he couldn't resist the curiosity.
Parker took a breath that seemed to encompass the length and breath of the cathedral, all 130 feet length and 68 feet wide, all its lies and emperors and wars and thorny crowns. She fit in so well here.
"I called Malone."
He swung his gaze at her.
She nodded and as well as she hid it, she was surprised that he remembered.
He knew "Maverick" Malone; few people didn't. He was as wild as the Cuban city he was named for, and twice as dangerous.
Two days after Parker had graduated college, Santiago Malone had called her. Jarod remembered they had been drenched in the glittering aftermath of red Sambuca and his body had worn the indelible imprints of her nails and teeth and their frenzied sex, something he had been sure Sydney would notice. But he hadn't cared because her father had offered her Head of Centre Security and she had agreed, celebrating by tangling herself so deeply in his body that she couldn't get to the phone until the fifth or sixth ring, and when she did, he had watched her face change.
In less than forty seconds, he watched her sober more quickly than anyone who had drunk as much as she did had any right to.
Malone had been fresh off the laurels of his exploits in Nicaragua, Romania, and what had once been the Soviet Union, and the CIA offered him anything he wanted - and of everything in the world, he had wanted her.
The offer had been legitimate and impossibly good - it was everything she had ever wanted to do with her life, everything away from Blue Cove and the Centre, everything that made her so alive she tingled and breathed sparks. Jarod had never been sure how Malone knew about her, and he guessed neither did she, although it had intrigued her. And yet, in his arms that morning, she had turned Malone down.
"What did he say?" Jarod had asked her in curiosity when she came back to bed and told him.
"To call him when I came to my senses," she said but then she was kissing him, and he had forgotten all about Santiago Malone until almost a decade later.
He had been pretending, investigating allegations of misconduct against Charles Twombly, a CIA political advisor who had been fired from his job after a diplomatic misfire. Jarod had never worked with Malone, nor even held a conversation with him or even gotten within ten feet of him - but he had been with one of Twombly's associates and they pointed out Malone from a bustling crowd of CIA employees walking by, with as much excited alacrity as if he was a rock star celebrity or Jack the Ripper.
Santiago Malone was a man that didn't need to be pointed out. He liked the severe cut of Balenciaga suits, and the outlines of his two hand-detailed Magnums were purposely visible even under the heavy fabric. He carried his guns like he was born with them, two black Magnums with his initials swirled on the custom grips in graceful platinum lettering that had been handcrafted in Rio and surely weren't legal in the States. He had killed a man once by slamming him so hard in the chest his heart stopped; he had killed many by knife and one by shooting him in the back. He wasn't a man that had to try to be anything; he just was. He was handsome, brilliant, successful, and experienced; he was exactly the type of man Parker hated.
She would have detested the scar that ran jaggedly from his left eye and made him even more handsome, because he was the type of man women flocked to, and his bold intelligence was nothing short of legendary. He had been born to a father employed in Covert Ops and he had followed him across the globe, learning sibilant languages, places on dark streets, and musky women who liked him more, and less, as he got older. No one knew what happened to his mother, least of all Santiago himself. When his father had been killed by a splinter group of Kto Kgo - a Russian faction called after Stalin's famous "Who Whom?" line - when he was sixteen, Malone had borrowed a friend's Colt, tricked out one of his father's passports, and become a maverick, in every sense of the word. By eighteen, he had eliminated all traces of Kto Kgo, and although he was underage, the CIA had brought him on board, figuring he wouldn't last five missions but preferring the missions were at least five of theirs. By twenty-one, he had more than one hundred covert operations to his credit with a 99.4% success rate. He had seen action in nearly every part of the world - Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, South America, the Middle East - and by twenty-five, there was no one in the CIA, or perhaps even the world, who could hold a candle to him.
At twenty-eight, he had called Parker and she had turned him down.
At thirty-one, even without her, he'd been offered the Directorship of Covert Activities - and in an unprecedented move, he promptly turned it down and spent three and a half months working out of Dhahran and Liechtenstein before returning to the US, completely oblivious to fact he wasn't in anyone's good graces. He was a field man, it was where he belonged, he insisted, not riding some desk, and the bright people were smart enough not to argue. And even with the demise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War communist threat in the 90s, there was still more than enough to keep the CIA busy running black ops. The cities changed and the jihads changed and the cartels changed, but the intelligence business ran along merrily.
A year after his refusal, it slipped out that he'd also been offered other rather staggering intelligence bids - a year back, with Mossad, a new one with MI6, and several with the KGB that stemmed back five years. But what had been worse than propositions from the established intelligence agencies, no matter what side of the Cold War they had played, was the offers that had come from the terrorist cells and the rebel coalitions, like Chrysalis 427 and the Voices of Silence who had blown up embassies already.
Suspicion had built to a pitch point by the mid-90s and had eventually culminated with Malone's suspension from the CIA two days before the Bogota mission that he had spent the better part of a year planning. When the CIA sent in a group of men for a mission he had specifically planned as an independent endeavor, Malone had flown down and extracted them himself, but not before six men had died in a firefight from hell.
Malone had been the only one who didn't get back out, and the CIA had left him for dead even though the mission had somehow still turned out successful. It had taken him four months, six days, and twenty hours to make it back to Langley, where, walking in straight-backed as he had walked out, the Director had simply handed him the position for Covert Ops Director once again. Malone, full beard and slicked in Colombian grime, had almost sent the Director out his plate glass window - the Director had settled for 37 stitches and the luck that both Magnums had been empty.
No one knew quite how he stayed with the CIA after that, but the last years had not been kind to him. He designed his own missions as one-person operations and although the offer for Covert Ops Director was never brought back up, there had been considerable pressure to bring him out of the field.
It had hit rock bottom for Santiago Malone, that everything he had ever known was slipping through his hands and he couldn't stop it. And then she had called, because everything she had ever known had already slipped through her hands, and because she thought he could help her, not the pretender that knew the ins and outs upside down, but a man whose only stability was his instability, whose only constant was change, and whose only safety was danger. In the gloom of the cathedral and the light of her consequences, Parker seemed half-dead and radiantly brilliant.
"Within four days, we took down Raines and Lyle."
And Jarod knew better than to ask how they liked Leavenworth, or where they had been buried. It wasn't his idea of justice, it wasn't how he would have done things - but he hadn't done anything, and now that they were gone, he didn't feel bad.
"Everyone else went after that," she said. "Broots got a slap on the wrist for hacking, and a few others were cited with misdemeanors, but Malone and I stripped the hardware and blew the Centre exactly seven days after I called him. Turning it into a park was his idea."
Jarod heard the children's laughter and the nose-tickling smell of pickle relish. If there had been more of that when the buildings stood, they never would have been here, across the ocean in a city called Paris where the light was all different, and the air, and this woman.
"So you're free," he said and it was in disbelief that they had both survived, that there was a life for them both now, and that after so many years of separation, it could be together. It was so simple.
Jarod reached to touch her; she didn't back away, but she spoke up quickly before he did and his hand hovered in the air between them.
"I work for them now," Parker said evenly.
Jarod's mind whirred and he could only manage a confused "Who?"
"The CIA." She enunciated each syllable distinctly.
"What?" and he laughed so that two people stopped their Hail Marys to look at him.
"I didn't get off free, Jarod," Parker answered and her voice was so tired and sad and full of votaries and unsaid prayers that he actually believed she wasn't lying and yet he still couldnít believe it was true. "There was no way I could. I'd been there too long, doing too many things. Malone swung the deal himself and I donít know how he ever got it through. The CIA didn't want to accept it at first and Malone worked like the devil to convince them to give me immunity in exchange for one thing."
"What?" he asked because there was always a catch, always another deal.
She paused and the cathedral seemed to sink in between them and Jarod realized how easy it was for things to fall. "Take down the Triumvirate in Africa."
In Notre Dame, the cathedral whose English name was "Our Lady of Paris," everything was a hushed whisper, echoes like dirges and the red way her breath had sounded after she came and he still tasted Sambuca Rossa on her, on him. Above them, the vaults of the ceiling stuck out like famine ribs - the whole point of Gothic architecture had been to raise the common person's eyes skyward to God, but sitting next to this woman, he could barely look higher than her eyes, which never seemed to look at him.
Parker rose and the stained glass threw glistening jewel-tones over her as if she was a worshipped saint or relicked martyr. She stepped past him in the pew and he heard her footsteps echo in the aisleway as she stood straight, bent, and crossed herself. She glanced over at him and in her eyes, he saw the eyes of the statues of smashed kings a year away from the coal yards.
Jarod went to her because he couldn't not go to her.
Rue de Français was silent and still below him as he climbed the uneven stairs to the flat where she was staying. As Parker opened the door to the Parisian night, he saw in her eyes that she knew he would come; it was why she hadn't bothered to ask who it was, grab her gun, and stand to one side of the doorframe before sliding the deadlock. Her blue eyes screamed at him, "You're free. Isnít that what you always wanted?"
Her hair was wet and as short as it was, jutted out at all odd angles, which made her look much too young and like a pagan saint. She was wearing some kind of white shirt that he knew without touching was soft, and jeans, and she had wiped away almost all her makeup, and she smelled like patchouli and the gun oil he knew was slippery on her fingertips. He would get a headache from the smell; it made him too dizzy.
"Don't," she said when he reached for her, but he came anyway and she didn't stop him.
The windows to the apartment were all pushed open and night air curled around them, cool and bittersweet. He could smell the muddy Seine and the pipe smoke from the old man on the corner by Malraux's butcher shop. Somewhere across the city, in a nameless club, rave music rose up over the skyline, all throbbing backbeats, synthesized rhythms, and pulsing bodies.
She closed the door and turned to him. In the darkness, he couldn't see the color of her eyes, but from her windows he could see the massive bulk of Notre Dame rising in strobes and shards over the city as if broken stone and the marble statues of virgins offered absolution, forgiveness, redemption.
Her skin was colder than he remembered, all Seine chill and less expensive perfume than he remembered, something with patchouli and sandalwood, not narcissus and wilder things.
The white shirt wasn't tucked in and Jarod touched her underneath it, sliding his hands around her waist, up the vertebrae of her lower back, sliding his palms over her bare breasts. Her hands on his shoulders seemed to balance her as she gasped just a little and her eyes gleamed that way they did when no matter how much she would deny it, she was so wet.
Her cell phone rang; he saw the blue glow as the faceplate lit up, but when she pulled back to answer it, he kept her in his arms. Jarod kissed her until the ringing stopped and he was pretty sure the color of her lipstick had been pomegranate, not berry, that strange fruit you ripped apart and ate only the crimson jelly around the white seeds.
When he pulled back in the silence and the darkness, his fingers were wound-white knuckles in her hair, her lips were wet from his kiss and already plumping swollen, and her eyes were still closed. And then she opened them and she seemed darker than before, the way she had always been in her twenties when he had known her only in darkness when she was ragged and desperate. She took his hand and pulled him to the bed with overwashed flannel sheets, shedding clothes every which direction.
Parker moved with the beat of the club music she could barely hear, because she had that kind of body that loved the drummed pounding of too much bass and no words. She remembered him too well, knew he liked it when she sunk her short nails into him because his hands were toying with her nipples, knew just how to make him cry out when she used too much tongue, and how he groaned when she used her teeth.
The vertebra in her lower back chittered as she arched when he pushed into her, and they rocked only slightly out of sync. She was breathing through her mouth and her lashes were so dark against her face when he kissed her again, and this time their teeth knocked against each other, jarred down to bone roots, and his tongue licked the roof of her mouth and he knew her hands were close to his face because he could smell gun oil again.
And suddenly outside her windows, they heard singing, and it was a young girl, probably too young to be out at such an hour, but she was singing so beautifully, such a pretty song, with the cadence and sad lilt of a troubadour's ballad. And for a second, Jarod thought Parker was going to start humming the tune, but she never did and instead the melody invaded them, quickened in her hips, and Jarod wished he knew the words as he felt her start shivering.
Jarod liked the way her ankles cracked when she came; because it was the only sound she made and the sound of air crushing bone would stay with him forever, because as much as he liked it, he could never think of it as a good thing. But then he felt the tingling along his nerves, and the blood rushing around his brain, and then he was chanting her name even before he came and welled and crashed ever so beautifully like a carved king. And his last thought before he let his lids close was that she was still awake and he was still inside her and that she must have been joking in Notre Dame.
But when he woke, he was alone. Her perfume rose in cold tendrils from his skin as he threw aside the sheets. It was barely light and just after dawn, but Rue de Français was bustling with street vendors and sidewalk artists, the gritty smell of coffee and the buttery scent of hot croissants that made him want to gag. Somewhere a few streets over, he heard the braying clang of the Parisian police sirens as they passed by towards the center of town where the rave music had come from the night before.
His panic wasn't entirely unexpected.
She had left him only one thing, besides the half-empty bottle of Pert she'd forgotten in the shower that ran only cold, turbid water: it was the only word she had spoken the night before. It was written on a piece of notebook paper, the blue lines running across the page like sprung capillaries, and stuck through a rusty nail on the door she had let him in through.
"Don't," was all it said and for almost three years, he didn't.
Title: Her Aquitaine --- PART TWO
Author: Elliott Silver
Not quite three years later, Santiago Malone swung open the door to his Alexandria home and he and Jarod met face to face for the first time.
"Where is she?" Jarod asked without prelude.
The scar under the CIA agent's dark eyes gleamed palely as he appraised him and then stood back and beckoned him into the house.
Jarod hadn't kept track of Parker in the three years since the night of gun oil and the satisfying way their bodies had been mostly in rhythm. At first, he'd been so angry and hurt with the note that he'd shunned any thought of her; then that had faded and he'd grown curious about why she wasn't coming to him, because for some reason, he couldn't believe anyone was serious about taking down the Triumvirate. It had been a Roman invention, that word, and it wasn't likely to soon disappear.
When he finally caved, she wasn't in any of the directions he looked. And that was when he grew concerned, that great gaping hole in the pit of his stomach where he had burnt an ulcer in Parker years before.
It took him months to confirm that she really was working with the Agency and that she had been doing so in Paris and that they really were quite serious about taking down the Triumvirate. It wouldn't have taken the CIA long to see the potential in her - Malone already had and he knew more than anyone - and they would have been suitably impressed watching her move, not only because she was dangerously beautiful when she moved, but because she did it so well, had been practicing her entire life for those moments in the dark and she had trained herself with ballet and a battery of guns to do it. Then he learned Maverick Malone was her mentor and they were working doubles for almost all her missions, and that she was working many of his, despite his preference for independent operations. He didn't know she was the only one who ever had.
Mostly Jarod knew what missions she wasn't doing more than he knew what she was. He knew she wasn't doing China, India, or the Middle East. Malone might have been able to blend in no matter where he went, but Parker would never walk ten steps behind a man or wear an abaya and people of both sexes recognized her wherever she went, whether with burning desire or burning jealousy. The only missions he knew she did were few, and he rarely knew more than whispers. He knew she went to Turkey, where saffron - the threads of the crocus flower - burned her nostrils; Holland, where the tulips were and always would be; Cambodia and Laos, where dragons were carved into the beams of pagodas, but never in their entirety, always so their bodies disappeared into water or cloud.
The last thing he learned was that she had gone to Italy after Paris, landing in a six-seater plane in Reggio di Calabria in the southern point of the boot at exactly the time when the bergamot was blooming lilac - probably because she was very good there - and because Malone was there. And because, he would learn later, that was where the Triumvirate conducted its business: arms, drugs, terrorism, money, ambition, revenge, power.
And then almost three years later, he had gotten a call on his cell phone, the new one, and her voice had been small, tinny, and full of trouble - exactly the way she had sounded when she was young in the Centre, and scared. Jarod had been in the rental car before the connection had gone dead and he had only gotten two speeding tickets getting to Santiago Malone twenty minutes to midnight.
"Where is she?" Jarod repeated as he stood in the blond wood and cream colors of the CIA agent's spacious living room and bright kitchen, and felt bizarrely out of place. Everything was light and chrome and lemon-oil polish, everything but the ruby-glazed Raku mug on the counter.
Malone twisted the lock on the front door and walked past him, light glinting off the Magnum in the holster on his thigh as he shut off the kettle whistling on the gas unit. He was even more imposing close up, at least 6'2" and muscled like an Irish mid-weight prizefighter. They stood about the same height, Jarod guessed, but Malone was more toned, his body less elegant but more powerful, sleekly unbelievably dangerous.
"Is it Africa?"
"She took down the Triumvirate two years ago, Jarod, " Maverick Malone told him, and his voice was roughshod with forced calmness and then Jarod knew it had to be even more serious than he had thought.
Santiago Malone had a handsome face, all chiseled jaw and cheekbones. Even if Jarod hadn't known, he would have guessed Malone's absent mother to have been high-caste Spanish - and she was, although she had lived in Cuba and danced flamenco carelessly - Malone's skin held that tint of olive complexion to it and his lashes and eyebrows were espresso dark. His eyes were forgettable because they weren't blue - instead they were a metallic grey, like graphite not mercury. And his nose, probably nobly elegant as a child, was slightly hooked three-quarters of the way up the bridge, where it had once or twice been broken.
Standing next to him, Jarod understood they were both men who didn't have to try to be dangerous.
"Then what happened?" Jarod asked. "Your deal was when the Triumvirate was gone, she was gone too."
"There was one last mission," Malone informed him and his tone was brisk like a briefing, which Jarod resented because he was better than having the facts presented to him one by one in chronological order. "She's been out of the game for two years - and it took her six months of hard combat training to come back. But she wouldn't let go and she refused all backing for it - CIA, NSA, FBI, even covert support."
"Why did you sent her out again?"
"I didn't," Malone told him and his voice was somewhat of a growl and it occurred to Jarod that this man worked very hard at standing still. "I was the one that told her not to go."
Jarod looked deliberately around the light rooms of the elegant brick Colonial that was Santiago Malone's, a residence that was in the historic section, pricey beyond even CIA belief, and furnished with Ethan Allen softwoods, what looked to be hand-spun glass tables, and decorated with modern artwork in gold water-leafed frames.
"Then why didn't you stop her?" She had been Malone's saving grace at the Agency, the one thing that kept him from being booted out or less pleasant things, and he had been her mentor and deal-broker and team leader. He towered over her and was no match for her in strength, very possibly an equal in wit, more than likely a tie in that dark aura they both projected, and he could very easily have stopped her.
"She spun this one on her own, and she wasn't going to let it go."
"Oh really?" Jarod questioned him. "How do you know that?"
"Because I know her," Malone answered him and his voice held more than CIA lectures and operations and deals.
"And exactly how well do you know her?"
They were three breaths apart and Jarod was waiting for one of them to make a move - Malone irritatingly confident and himself quite less so - when a small voice broke in between them.
Her head came to the top of Malone's kneecap and she twined her arm around the back of his leg and leaned against him rubbing her lidded eyes with the tiny hand that was dragging her blanket.
Her voice was strung halfway between temper tantrum and wigglely shyness and she couldn't have been much more than two years old. When she saw Jarod, she slid behind Malone's calf so well in her pink sleeper pajamas that he almost couldn't see her.
"Elanor," Malone admonished, and suddenly his voice was deeply gentle. "You're supposed to be sleeping." He bent down and she flung her little arms around his neck as he pulled her up against him. She immediately laid her dark head of hair that couldn't decide between curly or straight against his shoulder and wrapped herself contentedly into the crook of his arm. Her pink and blue plaid blanket dangled over Malone's chest like an absurd bib. She was very careful with her feet, all adorable stubby curled toes, not to touch Malone's Magnum resting heavily on his hip; and Jarod noticed, for being so young, she was already practiced at it.
"Is Mommy back?" she asked as Malone cradled the little girl close to him, their dark hair mixing together as his hand rubbed her curled back the slow soothing way only parents know.
Over her head, Malone met Jarod's eyes.
"Not yet, Elanor," he told her as his eyes locked on Jarod's, this legendary man whose myths didn't crumble like everyone else's and who wore a gun and held a child in his arms. "Not just yet."
The child raised her head and she finally turned to Jarod, her chin defiant and her blue eyes curiously deep.
"Sit down," Malone ordered him not unkindly and disappeared with the little girl.
As Jarod stood in the kitchen, he could hear their muffled voices trickling through the hallway and all he could think was that he couldnít think as he saw the pictures on the refrigerator - Crayola scribbles that ran off the page and the thick colors of finger-paints - and the Kodak of her smiling because his arms were around her.
Parker had hated Malone for so many reasons.
At first she hated him because he had answered the phone when she called him, and because she didn't want to admit she had needed help, if not in being saved, than at least in staying alive. She hated him later for being so cool and calm and collected when she felt like a roller coaster on spin cycle, when it seemed all she could do some days was open her eyes. She hated him for being a worthy adversary that would have made an interesting contest when she was at her best - but she wasn't at her best and she felt that keenly. She hated him because he refused her pity, mercy, and most cruelly, respect, and he didn't give her a choice in letting go of the Glenfiddich, Hennessey Reserve, and the cigarettes she had fallen back into. Malone made no secret of showing she wasn't the woman he had called all the years before. And he made sure she stayed away from the blue pills that kept her awake and the white pills that put her to sleep, away from faithless self-destruction when she still hadn't determined that she really wanted to live yet. He had simply decided she was going to.
And he made sure Parker found it wasn't so hard to open her eyes in the morning anymore. She still hated him when he opened the door to her apartment and found her on the floor in tears after the Centre had gone down in clouds of dust and rubble - and without words, he pulled her off the worn carpet. She hated him even more when he publicly ranted at her for her poor performance in the gun range, hitting only the third circle of the target with two of eight rounds of the Glock. She hated him still when he praised her - "About time" - when she hit all eight rounds in the bullseye with the black .357 he had handed her. She hated him without quite knowing why, hated him for the way that he came around corners towards her and her breath would catch.
She had hated him when there was snow on the ground, and footprints through it, but the air was mild with a warm front. Capitol darkness had washed over them, and her voice cut through the silence: "I'm still alive," she had said, and Jarod was sure of it because he knew her. And her tone had held heartbreaking disbelief, as if she was a coma patient waking up after seven years, finding dents she didnít remember and more lines around her eyes and mouth than she would have been comfortable with.
And the man they called Maverick had looked at her and answered, "Yes."
She hated him in Neufchatel, Switzerland, on her first mission against the Triumvirate - and she continued to hate him in Odessa, when he complimented her Ukrainian accent; in Monaco, when he told her she looked beautiful; in Reykjavik when she fell asleep on his shoulder waiting for their flight and he didn't move her head; in Moscow, when it had been below zero in Red Square and he had taken her hands and warmed them in his own.
She hated him the same way when she had gone to Paris.
"Jarod," and the pretender looked up as Malone handed him the red mug full of dark steaming liquid and he stared down into it.
"You expected something more," Malone said as he reached for another mug and his movements were all quiet, from special CIA training or from the experience of keeping a child asleep. "Whiskey or Cognac or Saki. Even a fine Loire red would have done. You didn't expect me to be as civilized as tea."
"No," Jarod said but they both knew it was a lie.
"It's Darjeeling," Malone informed him as he poured hot water and sugar into another, stirring the tea bag gently, the same thorough way Jarod imagined he cleaned his guns. "From the Namring Estate in India."
Jarod took the tea from the man in the white shirt not because he wanted it or needed it, but because the man was wearing a custom .357 Magnum that was loaded; the dark liquid tasted bitter like roots, like Silk Road spices, like deep medicine.
"She - " Jarod began without looking up and then he thought he had to be crazy.
"She looks just like her mother." And then Jarod knew it was true, because he saw the ring on Malone's hand, simple silver platinum like his initials on his Magnum.
"What could be so important?" he asked the man who had put his daughter to bed with the same hands that had killed people.
"You," Malone told him instantly and bitterly and even standing across the kitchen space, Jarod had never felt so threatened, even when Parker had held a gun to his head and he knew she had a twitchy finger. "She went because they want you."
"We never had good Intel," Malone continued. "We never knew who they were, except that it's a radical regime who found the idea of a pretender fascinating in light of their plans to rule the world."
He must have been pale, because Malone added, "Same old story."
"She only went to gather Intel," Malone continued. "We planned for everything but this - and now they want to trade her for you."
It was all happening so fast, too fast. In his mind, when he saw Parker again, it was supposed to be longer, warmer, neater - it wasn't supposed to be matters of life or death and she was never supposed to be married and have a daughter.
"She made me promise her one thing before she left," Malone told him and by the sound of his voice, Jarod felt the fury and pain and uncertainty of worry and not being able to do what he had been trained to do. "She made me promise I wouldn't come after her if anything happened, because of Elanor."
"But if you don't go, I will," Malone said and his voice was shadows and the sound empty cartridges made when they hit pavement. "And I don't know that I can bring her back alive."
Malone would die for her; it was as simple as that. Jarod wasn't sure he was that brave because he had failed once before to free her from something so simple as the Centre. But he knew one of them had to go.
Jarod set the blazing red mug down on the counter; it was Parker's mug he knew without knowing quite how he knew.
"Where is she?" he asked and the question was so much harder to ask now.
Malone set down his own tea and went to the kitchen table scattered with papers, trajectories, and scribbled notes - and in the middle, a battered but still respectable copy of Where the Wild Things Are.
He handed Jarod a piece of paper with her cell phone number. "She went to Delaware, but they took her to Maine before the SatComm went down yesterday. They're expecting a call by midnight."
He headed for the door.
"Jarod?" Malone called. "If she's not back in two days, I'm coming after her."
What he would remember about the first part of that night was actually very little, in return for remembering the second half word for aching word. Jarod remembered endless coffee and being thankful it wasn't Darjeeling, although he would barely remember the three times he got pulled over by no-nonsense state troopers for speeding. He would remember the car radio had three pre-set buttons that didn't work and that he had only been able to pick up Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," but not that it had been raining lightly all night and that I95 was slick as ice with the unwashed oil on the macadam and that he had fishtailed twice and almost lost control of the Camry in a wide turn going close to seventy. As he slipped through sleeping towns, Jarod would remember that he had sent her once to Maine, years ago, to look up Ben. For some reason, Jarod hadn't thought it would take so long to get there and he imagined how crazy it must have driven her to drive so far with the snaps to her garter belt alternating scraping and itching, her skirt riding up indecently, and her stilettos killing her arches.
He would remember that the dilapidated gas station had once been a Sunoco, but he wouldn't recall that it had been in Kittery. He was stiff when he got out of the Camry, the muscles screaming down the back of his leg from the constant pressure on the gas pedal, and he could hear the ocean in the distance as he headed towards the dark building.
He would remember that Parker had called to him then, from the back of the garages where it reeked of beer parties and antifreeze, and her voice was calm as the lights went on, just old store security lights, so that the area looked like a theatrical production of some modernized Shakespeare play where nobody spoke in iambic pentameter.
He wouldn't remember that her hair was stringy, her clothes filthy, and her face dirty, but he remembered that she was still beautiful; even after three years, an intelligence career, and a child, she was beautiful; she would always be beautiful.
He remembered very little else and certainly nothing about how many recruits there were guarding her or hiding in the shadows of the Sunoco garage. Someone would tell him the name of the group later and tell him they were the ones responsible for several attacks in Beirut and Haifa, and that they weren't very good but they were very dangerous, but he would only remember the man that walked out slowly, his hair almost white and that alone made him want to cry.
"Sydney," he had said.
He would remember less after that because he would try to forget it all. Sydney would explain how a pretender was going to help them topple governments and rule the world, and it had sounded like the Centre all over again, although his voice was hoarser and his hand gestures wilder, and his eyes frenzied. He wouldn't remember Parker's hurtful accusations of Sydney's ties to the group, or that she said he was "cracked," that he had gotten out of the Centre just before she took it down, and just before she and Malone took down the Triumvirate. He wouldn't remember that her voice had gotten louder and louder and he wouldn't remember at all how she had gotten her gun back because it seemed there was no logical way for her to do so, except that Malone had taught her well - the big black .357 Magnum with the silver letters on it - and how the bodies fell in thuds and smelled like copper. He would remember Sydney being the only one standing and telling him that he knew who his parents were - but he wouldn't so much remember that he'd also held a gun in his hands and it was aimed at his prodigy's temple.
"Jarod," Parker ordered him and her voice sounded like a saint. "Don't."
But he would.
Even under hypnosis, he wouldn't have been able to recall how fast it all happened. He barely saw Sydney move when he heard the first round leave the Magnum's chamber and knew she only had two more shots left. She fired the second just before she hit him with her body and they tumbled towards the ground together, but by that time, Sydney had pulled the trigger and she was directly in his line of fire because she was falling exactly where his pretender had stood only half a breath before.
Her third shot left the barrel as a gut-check reaction, as fast as falling in love, right before or after Sydney's bullet hit her.
The bullet hit the man he'd always tried to pretend was his father somewhere in the upper temple; later when he would look, there was nothing but skull fragments, shocked eyeballs blown from their sockets, and brain innards that weren't really grey, but it was an easier color to call them than dead.
Parker lay on the concrete, body stretched like a rubber band or a cheetah at full stride. In the end, they hadn't fallen together; the blast had thrown her four feet farther back than him. The floor smelled like tires and chemicals.
And there was blood because nothing ended without blood being spilled.
He touched the exit wound and the singed, frayed hole of her shirt where the bullet had burned out. Even on a black shirt, it was crazy amazing how blood was still red. It was red on his palms when he touched her, the color of her Chanel lipstick she wore when she was twenty, the color of Zambello Originale Sambuca Rossa. And Jarod remembered in Paris the way darkness bled over her unclothed skin, the way she moved when his hands traced her flesh.
"Parker?" and this time she didn't say 'don't.' And all Jarod knew was that she couldn't be dead because that couldn't be the last word she said to him.
She lifted her head slowly, then pushed back on her elbows, and in a jerky motion, swung to her feet. She wore the entrance and exit wounds just under her scapula and collarbone like a medal, like they didn't hurt. And all he thought was that Malone had been right; she was the best. She knew saying 'don't' that he would - she remembered Paris.
Parker never looked at him, at Sydney shattered on the concrete, or at the dead men scattered throughout the room; she just walked out into the blue-purple Maine night, out where he had heard the ocean.
Jarod watched her go and then looked at the man that had been his mentor. To Parker, it had never mattered that it was Sydney or that she had once known him and perhaps he had been more a father and friend to her than anyone else - all that had mattered was that he was on the other side of the trigger.
When he joined her, she was leaning back against the car, Malone's Magnum still clutched tightly in her hand and he would remember everything from then on with startling clarity. There was blood dripping over her fingers, over the pebbled grip where his initials were detailed not in something so trivial as high carat gold, but in precision platinum.
Her head was bent, her chin almost touching her chest, and Jarod could hear the bare whispers of what sounded like a prayer. Perhaps it was the same one she had recited in the cathedral of light and tears and stained glass in Paris. Perhaps she was only inhaling roughly against the pain. Perhaps she was just crying.
Jarod went to her because it was what he should have been doing all his life.
Her dark hair whipped around her smudged face and the bruise along her cheekbone where a bruise pooled, dead, just beneath her skin.
When she looked up at him, all blue eyes and dark lashes, the world stopped.
When he touched her, gently pulling aside the shoulder of her jacket, she started shivering. Sydney's shot was bleeding out slickly, all severed veins and popping gore, but Jarod couldn't take his eyes off the blood leaking over her hand, just one thin streamer of it, where she'd skinned a knuckle, rubbed all the skin off the bone leaving nothing but a little blood and some stinging nerves the way she always had as a child.
She looked up at him and in the shadows, she looked just as she had that night in Carthis.
Standing with her in the Maine night the color of octopus' jet, Jarod wanted to kiss her, he didn't care where - mouth, shoulder, finger, back of knee, curl of spine. But their relationship had never been about touch, about closeness, about his dreams - it had always been about distance and how he had kept himself from imagining how to cross it, how he had always kept dreaming of kissing her with teeth and tongue so hard her hair would yank through his hands, but stopped himself before he did.
Parker had nowhere to go when he stood in front of her with her back to the car, but she smelled like sweat and mechanic's grease and gun oil. She smelled like chelated copper and spilled blood and dying dreams.
He knew it was wrong, but he pretended that it was right.
Because once, a long time ago, when he was too scared to believe it, it had been.
But things that were right didn't last forever.
She looked up at him and he knew she read his thoughts, and so close to her, all he wanted was this night and a bottle of red Sambuca to change her mind, like the night when she had said 'no' to Santiago Malone, as if he could cancel out the 'yes' she had said later.
He wanted to say "We could go anywhere" and he wanted her to say "Yes" to him.
Instead Jarod said, "I saw Elanor."
They were the first spoken words between them, although they had learned a long time ago how to speak across distance.
"Paris," was all she said and there was a silence between them as expansive as Notre Dame, the cathedral of gargoyles, smashed kings and red votaries when he didn't speak.
"She's yours, Jarod." And he remembered the one night he couldn't forget, when Parker had told him only a single word, "Don't."
"Malone can't have children," she said slowly, and if she had been anyone other than herself, her voice would have gone soft. Jarod expected eyes like broken rocks, like smashed kings in Paris coal yards, like crushed sapphires, but when she looked at him, her eyes were as smooth as the lake where a place called the Centre had once stood, and nothing about her was broken anymore.
Parker would never tell him it was that night in Paris that she knew she loved Malone; but she never had to because Jarod saw it in her eyes. How she had kept her eyes closed after he kissed her that night, how she had dialed Malone on her way down the stairs and before she had even reached Rue de Français, he had answered in that black-label bourbon voice of his. How she had said simply, over the static and ocean apart, "I'm coming home" and they had both known - Malone, perhaps, had known sooner.
And he knew that when she loved Santiago Malone, she did it the way she did all things, once and with all her heart.
"I didn't plan it, Jarod. I didn't expect it and at first, I didn't want it," she told him and she was blunt in her honesty - and it hurt more to him because she was so honest. "I didn't even know until I was almost six months along. I'd been doing fieldwork in Italy and then Hong Kong, Beijing, Saigon, and Jakarta. I was on a plane to Africa when Malone said, "I think you're pregnant."
"It was the last real mission against the Triumvirate," she continued. "Malone called me back, ordered me home, even though we didn't know a thing."
And Jarod could only imagine Malone's surprise when she decided not to listen.
Parker shook her head as if in hindsight. "I told Malone if he wanted to extract me, he was going to have to come do it himself." She looked out at the Maine night and the reverberations of the ocean. "It took him four days to catch up with me because I was two days ahead."
Parker looked over at him and her eyes were bright in the darkness of the night. "We had already taken out Dakar and Kinshasa - the two arms depots in Senegal and Zaire - and we were on our way to South Africa when Malone literally stopped our plane on the runway in Zaire."
She breathed and he was surprised it was so easy for her to do that.
"It wasn't quite six Zulu time and we were supposed to fly down past Cape Town and hit Triumvirate Station at twenty minutes to midnight." Parker stopped looking at him. "And Malone stood there on that runway outside Kinshasa and stopped our plane. And he stood there and told me there was no way in hell he was letting me go. So I grabbed one of his black Magnums from his shoulder holster and I put it in his hand and I told him he was going to have to shoot me if he wanted to stop me, because I was going to take down the Triumvirate. I told him that I would rather die with the child I might have been carrying than to let her grow up in a world still dictated by the Triumvirate."
Only Parker could have trumped the best CIA agent, perhaps ever. Only Parker who sometimes could be an obscene bitch and a real idiot, a tease, a gambler, a risk-taker of the worst kind. Only Parker with her independence and caustic voice and four-inch heels. Only Parker who believed in some things so much it hurt.
Her voice fell to a bare-bones whisper. "He put that gun back in my hand when we got off the plane because that was the only way he was letting me go."
And even without looking at him, he knew Malone would have covered her dirty hands were his own when he handed her the big .357 Magnum, that they would have stood there like that for just a second, all fingers and ragged nails and palms, and that then they would have gone.
Parker had once wanted a life where a silver Glock was all she needed. And Jarod knew if only he hadn't given her time after Paris, if only he hadn't stayed away after Carthis, if only he hadn't cared so much for his own freedom that he had denied her own. 'If only' would break your heart.
And Jarod knew she wouldnít tell him any more - at least, not in words. But Parker's looks had always been twice as painful as her sharp words. It was the worst mission Santiago Malone had ever handled, was written across her retinas, and that was saying everything.
Against the backdrop of tangled forests and mountains the color of Black Mission figs, they had dropped into the part of Africa called the Garden Route. But the Triumvirate hadn't gone down without a fight and of the sixteen specially-trained field agents that went in under Parker's and Malone's commands, only six came out again. Only two people had braved the deathlock of the Station, a huge old Dutch fortress built in the Boer times. And in the hell-torn heat of South Africa, the last battle for world control had played out in the hands of a few good hearts and none, not even the tiny heart pulsing in her womb, had come away unscathed.
On the edge of the dark continent where the South Atlantic met the Indian Ocean, 53 km outside a town called Mossel Bay, she and Malone had gone into the enemy's lair and 4.2 hours later, emerged just as the C4 explosives rained shrapnel down over them the same way they had brought down the Centre. Parker returned with a scar from a whizzing metal shred just below the back of her left kneecap as they ran and then fell together in a cloud of ungodly red dust from the blast pulse and bricks of basalt rock and melted steel beams pounded down around them. Malone pulled her under him, covered her body with his own, and he bore two slashed scars, one across his scapula and the other over the back of his scalp that could have cut open his skull.
Malone rolled off her as soon as the wreckage hail stopped. Huge billowing whirlwinds of red dust shivered over them and they coughed as the sticky-dry particles invaded their lungs, coagulated glutinous and bitter over their soft palettes and the back of their throats. Parker had started gagging because the dust tasted like drought. They were stomach to stomach facing each other and Malone had pulled her to him and he held the mesh of his shirt over her face and she breathed without dying. They had stayed like that for a while, maybe a hour, maybe only a few minutes as the sun set indigo around them and when she looked up, she could see a storm moving in on the horizon and rainbows streaming through its clouds.
Then she had looked up at him and his arms were still around her and his grey eyes deep as thunder. She had kissed him then, red dust rasping on their lips.
"I'm pregnant," Parker had said, as calmly as if she had said the weather, or that she was 34, or that she had fallen in love with the hooked scar under his eye. She knew then, she had just known.
"I know," Malone answered her, and his tone hadn't wavered. In the distance, they could hear the first rolling booms of thunder echoing in the canyons of the Draksenberg. And then with her hand shaking in his, he had kissed her again, this time her tongue sliding around his, and she had stopped being afraid.
They had stayed in South Africa that night because behind the blood, it was a beautiful place. Outside the window of his rooms the milkwood trees had swayed in the lisp of rain the way their two bodies had moved together like the ocean rushing up the beach. And Malone's hands had come to rest on her excruciatingly still-flat stomach, and when she had woken, she had known he hadnít moved, nor closed his eyes, and he had asked her then to marry him.
Outside the Camry whose beige-ish color never seemed to deserve a real name, Parker looked out at Jarod and her gaze held him.
"We flew out of Cape Town on Tuesday, May 23. Malone had a doctor waiting the moment we stepped onto the field at Key West. And Elanor was born on August 16."
Jarod got in, turned the ignition switch and the car started with a restless hum.
Title: Her Aquitaine --- PART 3
Author: Elliott Silver
The sun rose over Alexandria at exactly 5:22 am on November 3. Jarod knew because that was when he stopped driving and watched the fiery ball of gas and heat climb into the sky. He'd had the heaters on full blast since Kittery and the Camry was still warm as he eased the brakes. Beside him, in the spine-straight seat, Parker's head lolled on her good shoulder in sleep.
Sitting there in the uncomfortable seats and tepid air, Jarod knew this was as close as he would ever be to her again. He lifted his hand off the steering wheel and gently touched her cheek; her skin was soft even under the layers of dirt, but there were a few little lines around the corners of her eyes, gentle ones, and she was too beautiful in peace for him to do anything but reach for the keys and shut off the idling engine.
Parker shifted awake immediately and blinked her eyes furiously against the bright sun cascading through the windshield and falling over them. She raised a hand to shield her eyes and she looked over at Jarod, her pupils still dilated and struggling to focus.
"Where are we?" she rasped.
"Home," he answered because it was the only answer he could give. And then she looked past him and saw the numbers on the mailbox and her blue eyes widened and it was perhaps one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen before she swung out of the car and stiffly made her way across the lawn.
Malone had the door open before she even made it to the sidewalk.
There was nothing for him to do but get out and follow her. And he did, both of them slipping past her husband into the house.
Santiago Malone let the screen door swing shut and turned to face her and it wasn't hard to see how worried he'd been - his grey eyes were haggard. And across the dim, unlit space of their living room, he and Parker stared at one another. The sun had yet to come in their windows and it was still dark enough in the air that Jarod's dreams were still possible.
But Jarod watched them and he knew. Across ten feet, there was more between them than most people when they embraced. She wasn't a woman who ran to a man, and he wasn't a man who wanted her to. She stood on her own two feet and from ten feet away, he caught her as surely as if his arms had been around her.
Malone had never made a promise with his eyes he hadn't kept, and he had looked at her that way even when she had walked into the CIA, unsteady in her heels, hands yellowed and almost shaking when she reached for the cigarettes and Hennessey Reserve she didn't think he knew about, when she had been a ruined creature in a rock-candy shell.
He didn't try to be dangerous; he just was. And then when she had seen that look in his eyes on a Dresden street in December, where the effects of American bombing was barely visible in the city's repair, Parker stopped trying so hard, because surviving wasn't about being dangerous and neither was loving someone.
Santiago Malone knew sometimes just looking at her was making love, and Parker looked across the living room at him more intimately than Paris cathedrals and red Sambuca could ever be.
The heartbreaking part was that they both loved her like that. And the heartbreaking part was that they both couldn't have her. And the heartbreaking part was that she loved this man Santiago Malone.
And the heartbreaking part was the little voice, as raspy in sleep as her mother's, when she whispered, "Mommy?" like she was dreaming.
But then she was wide-awake and her voice shrilled like a jaybird's. "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy!" And suddenly she was thirty pounds of big blue eyes and curly dark hair flying missile-bound across the floor between the three of them.
"Elanor Aquitaine!" And then Parker was reaching down for her daughter as the child launched herself into mid-air believing in simple things like monsters under the bed, the tooth fairy, and the certainty of human flight. And Parker caught her as mothers always did and the two of them whirled around in giggles, no matter how sore or tired she was and how much her shoulder ached and stabbed and the pain was probably enough to make him pass out. Jarod couldn't tell whose blue eyes were whose, and in the end, it didn't matter.
They were both Santiago Malone's.
And as mother and daughter clung to each other, Jarod looked over at the other man. That's why I brought her home, and he knew Malone understood. Because this was the man who had become Acting Director of Covert Operations two days after he found out Parker was pregnant, signing all the papers before he had even left for Africa, before it was certain, before knowing the Triumvirate would end, before knowing either of them would survive. All he had known was that Parker would be on a plane outside Kinshasa and that she might have been carrying another man's child because it was one of the first things she had said to him in Reggio di Calabria, that she had slept with another man in full view of the Seine and the cathedral called Notre Dame. And he had been the Director for almost two and a half years now, running the world from an imitation wood desk and stifling corner office because he loved them more than he loved the wide, open spaces of the field and the wild rush of freedom.
"Are we going to London now?" Elanor asked, her arms around her mother's neck, her fuzzy pajamas riding up on legs that one day would be as long and dangerous as Parker's. She didn't think anything of the dirt smudged across her mother's face and into the crow's feet just beginning to show around her eyes, nor did she seem to think it was out of the ordinary for her mother to be bleeding or have a .357 crammed into her back waistband. She simply traced the bruise the color of Black Mission figs pooling across Parker's cheekbone as if it was stained glass and kept her toes away from the gun.
"Yes," Parker answered and her eyes rested heavily on his. "Yes, Elanor Aquitaine, we are."
"Today?" her daughter piped.
"No, not today."
"Tomorrow?" his daughter persisted.
"Soon," Parker promised. "Soon."
And then mother and daughter turned to Jarod, and the world was suddenly nothing but blue eyes and unsaid words and the way his breath always caught in his chest when he thought of her, them, what might have been.
As she looked over at him, Jarod thought she'd always had such an expressive face. Years at the Centre had worn it away, but of all the things he wished he hadn't missed about her, all the minutes that had been stolen, all the looks and touches, Parker's expression when she had realized she was carrying a child, his child, and she was going to be a mother, was the one whose loss Jarod felt most keenly. The one he wanted most to forget was this happy face of hers when she promised her daughter it was all over and they were leaving and their life was starting on the other side of the ocean where Malone would teach international affairs at Trinity College and Parker would hate Harrod's, but love Trafalgar Square and Elanor would be superbly happy.
"Come on, Elanor," Malone said as he bent down, a huge hulking frame of a man who carried a single black Magnum in his double shoulder holster because he had given its mate, like his heart, to his wife. He was a man whose daughter's silvery laughter was the color of unicorns, and who touched his wife more passionately and more truly from ten feet away than most people could touch each other with nothing but sweat between their skins.
And when Malone reached for her, Elanor laughed and it was a sound so beautiful, so clear and full of hope, Jarod forgot about places like the Centre; it was a sound to make him believe in anything, even happy endings. Then with her tiny hand in Malone's, she looked up at Jarod.
"Bye," she said as if she knew why she was saying it.
In 1122, the woman who would be known as Eleanor of Aquitaine was born; she had inherited the duchy of Aquitaine - a third of feudal France - when she was fifteen, had become Queen of France at nineteen, and had incited the Second Crusade, but had dictated it be led against Edessa not Jerusalem, and everyone from her husband to each little teapot knight had been less than thrilled when she - and 300 of her ladies - came along to tend to the wounded. She was a woman of whom not one portrait or picture remained - and sometimes it was best that way, Jarod thought, sometimes beauty like hers explained everything. She was the troubadour's daughter, and they sang about her in songs whose words had been lost, "You have been the first among my joys, and you shall be the last, so long as there is life in me."
And Jarod bent on his knees, took her tiny hand in his, and told his daughter the only thing he could: "You have been the first among my joys, and you shall be the last, so long as there is life in me."
She was only two, but before Elanor disappeared with the only father she had ever known, Jarod swore he had seen understanding in her eyes. But then their voices were echoes, but he could still hear the child's laughter and it felt like dying.
And then the woman once called Miss Parker and the boy whom she had once loved were alone. And he saw sadness in her eyes, liquid and golden the way her eyes had once been. But it wasn't for this or them, it was for the way light shone through stained glass in Notre Dame, the way the ocean rushed up the coast in Maine without being truly beautiful, the way the sunsets in Africa were breathtakingly spectacular when they were the color of blood and bruises and Magnums. But that was the part of her that had once loved him, and it was a small part, such a little part.
"Thank you," she said and it was the last thing he had ever expected to hear from her. Perhaps that was how much she had changed; perhaps it was the only thing to say.
"You never needed rescuing, Parker."
"No," she answered him. "I needed you to love me then, but you never did."
And between them were the five years he had left her at the Centre, the two years he had stayed away after Carthis, and the three years he had lost her after Paris. It was a decade of unsaid words and missing touches and lost beginnings; it was a decade of should have been. And only now he knew that hopes did fail and good battles were lost and ends did come. It was something he wished he had never known.
"I do now." And his words reminded him of the teenager in Notre Dame with the fluorescent rosary, apologizing brokenly in French over and over, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry" as if it could ever be enough.
Parker only held the door open for him and he went out onto the porch where the sun was.
"We should have loved each other." He stopped, only inches from her as their two bodies filled the doorway the way they had once filled a Parisian night when a young girl singing lost songs had passed under open windows.
"Yes," Parker answered him and she didn't waver. "We should have."
But then she was backing away and he was glad he had touched her cheek in the car. His sin was that he thought they were inevitable. He had thought because he loved her as a child and a teenager and a boy-man and finally an old man, that she would love him too. But the problem was, he never really loved her when she was right next to him, but when she was distant and on the verge of lost. He had never had the courage to love her as she should have been loved; he loved her only in troubadour's lyrics. He had never been as smart as everyone thought.
The sound of the door closing behind him was the worst thing he had ever heard because he knew she was standing on the other side.
The windows all along the front of the house were wide open and he heard Malone's footsteps on the hardwood floor.
"You can go with him," the man they called Maverick told her. "You can take Elanor."
And in that long moment, Jarod knew that Santiago Malone was the kind of man he would never be - the good kind.
"I love you, Malone," he heard Parker say and she had never used that tone with him because it was exquisite and that was what love did to people. "I love you for so many reasons. I love you for this - " and he heard the thud of the black Magnum as she placed it on the tabletop. "I love you for this - " and in the silence, Jarod guessed she was pointing to her shoulder, or to her heart. "I love you for that - " and he knew she meant for his words. "I love you for Odessa, Monaco, Reykjavik, Moscow, and Mossel Bay," and he heard the list of cities go on wordlessly. "I love you for our daughter, Elanor Aquitaine," and there was a soft pause. "But most of all, I love you," and her voice was muffled so that Jarod knew, even standing on the other side of the door, that Malone was holding her and that she was in his arms and that they could stay that way forever, because that was where she belonged.
And then he heard her Aquitaine called them - "MommyDaddy" as if it was all one word - and there was an echo of giddy laughter only children could make - and he heard unicorns galloping free.
"Let's go get our daughter," Parker said and he heard the echoes of their footsteps as she and Malone went together.
Jarod left before Elanor fell back asleep a little after 6am and three readings of Where the Wild Things Are, still dirty and undeniably beautiful. He left before Malone brewed Silver Jasmine tea in two cups, one of them glazed ruby red, and the two of them stood together as the sunlight fell over the taped boxes of their possessions waiting only for her and an airplane flight. Jarod left before Malone helped her strip the sodden, sticky clothes from her back, peeling off layers of scabbing so that the blood ran free from her shoulder and burned in the water of the shower. He was an hour away when Parker stood under the hot spray and Malone joined her and the first time their bodies touched skin to skin was as the blood ran free from her shoulder and burned in the water and she reached for Malone and he kissed her long and slow and hard because that was how they loved each other too. Malone was there as she cried, holding her without words because there were no words and there never would be, as she put her head on his shoulder and for a little while fell asleep like that under the hot water and his body - and they stayed there without moving, because the man who had separated his black guns couldn't think that hot water would be anything but good for her wounds. Jarod was almost to the Virginia line when Malone taped the wound dry and let her sleep in their bed, in his arms, staying vigilantly awake as she slept to make sure she didn't roll the wrong way as he had when he had felt Elanor move under his palm for the first time in South Africa and Parker's eyes had grown even wider than when he had asked her to marry him and she had realized he had been asking her for such a long time without saying a word.
Jarod was three states away when Malone swung the black Suburban into Grant Winslow's Family Dentistry practice in the DC suburbs - it was a CIA covert ops medical center for times when bullet holes and more awful things couldnít be reported by hospital staff. Jarod was doing twenty-two miles over the speed limit by the time they x-rayed and debrided and sutured Parker's shoulder, as Elanor calmly ate Apple Cinnamon Cheerios out of Malone's callused palm as he read her parts of Time magazine in the waiting room and her mother finally came out in a blue arm sling and a handful of prescriptions for antibiotics and one for painkillers, which she wouldn't fill. Jarod was five states away when the Sally Dobbs, the Prudential real estate agent, clipped the "Sold" banner onto the signpost in the front yard and the last boxes of Elanor's toys, the kitchen utensils, and Malone's books were loaded onto the van to be shipped to England.
Jarod was pulled over on the side of an endless road and crying.
Two months later, he was drinking unnamed tequila from the bottle in a town whose name he couldnít pronounce even when he was sober - because drinking was easy and something to do when the tap water tasted like leeches and bad pipes and made him violently sick- when the Boeing 747 pounded down the Dulles runway with his daughter shrieking in delight and took flight into the perfect sky heading towards sunrise. Six hours later when he finally fell asleep, the plane landed safely at Heathrow with Santiago Malone, Elanor Aquitaine Parker-Malone, and the woman who had once been called Miss Parker and a boy named Jarod had fallen in love with but hadn't loved enough.
And in his dreams, when he wasn't awake and it hurt even more, all Jarod could think was that he let her go because her daughter's - their daughter's - laughter sounded like unicorns, because she named her Elanor and called her Aquitaine, and because he once loved her and loved her still, will certainly die loving her in a world where nothing is certain, not even love.
I hope it was worth-while and I hope there was some measure of beauty - thanks for being there.
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