Author's note: Written by request of Gail, who has kindly donated to the John Kerry campaign in return for this story. Set after "Secret Agent Man." Thanks to Gail for the beta.
I can still feel the heat of the Philippine jungles on my skin.
I signal to the bartender for another beer. He obliges, and shoves a bowl of honey salted peanuts in my direction for good measure. This Langley bar is a favorite hangout for CIA types and I can see why. Dimly lit, with dark shadowy corners, loud music, and plastic over the windows. The air smells of smoke and hops, and the counter -- etched with graffiti of the four-letter variety -- is sticky with alcohol. Behind the counter, the bartender is a large ex-Marine, with a tattoo of an anchor on his right bicep. Another tattoo -- a small blue star -- adorns the base of his thumb. Two of his front teeth are missing. He says his name is Rex.
"You military too?" Rex gives the counter top a half-hearted swab. I move my hands away from his dingy dish cloth.
"How do you know?"
He slams a couple of tall glasses of beer on a tray, the foam spilling over the top. The waitress, a platinum blond with cherry red lips, carries the order away. "You've got that look, that military look. So?" Rex looks at me expectedly. "So are you?"
"Was." The beer cools my throat, settles uncomfortably in my gut. The bitter taste still lingers in my mouth. I wonder how long it'll be before it fades completely. "I'm CIA now."
"Yeah." I take another deep, long drink. "What's your story?"
Rex shrugs, takes a look around. It's a Monday night, the place isn't too crowded. Three men are playing pool over the corner, and a man and woman have commandeered a corner booth; according to Rex, the woman's drinking seltzer water, but the man is on his second Jack Daniels with Coke.
"The usual," Rex says. "Went to ROTC in high school, didn't have a better way of paying for college, and ended up in the Marines. Spent six years in the service, including nine months in the first Gulf War. Got out and never did end up going to school." He looks at me curiously. "You waiting for someone?"
Literally no, figuratively yes, but I don't feel like going into the particulars. "That's one way of looking at it."
"It's a yes or no question." Rex narrows his eyes at me. "Are all of you CIA boys this hard to talk to?"
I shrug. "Not much to say. I used to be Navy. Flew F-14s. Tomcats."
Rex lets out a low whistle. "*Nice*."
"You ever miss it?"
I glance at him briefly. "Yes." I take a handful of peanuts and munch on them thoughtfully. In the background, someone puts money in the jukebox; suddenly Elvis Presley competes with Aerosmith. I look at Rex, wonder if he will turn the main PA system down, but he makes no move to do so. I shift in my seat and see the man and woman dancing, his hands on her lower back, her head resting against his shoulder. I wonder if they can even hear Elvis. I wonder if it even matters.
"I gotta go check something in the kitchen," Rex says. "Be back. Keep an eye on the place, will you?"
"Sure." I lift my sweaty beer bottle at Rex's retreating figure. I finish off the beer gloomily and pick at the peanuts. According to my watch, it's quarter past nine. Early still. Too early, I think. If I go home -- I use the term loosely, since 'home' is a hotel room about three blocks down the street, rented just for the night as to avoid DC traffic in the morning as I have an early meeting -- I'll probably just lie awake watching reruns of "Law and Order." Sleep these days doesn't come that easily.
I turn at the sound of Webb's voice. "You found me."
Webb pulls up the barstool next to mine. "I'm CIA. It's my job to track down people. Even those who don't want to be found."
"Well, you've succeeded." I glanced at him sideways. "What are you doing here?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
"No, not really."
"I came to check on you. See how your first day on the job went."
I twist on the barstool to look at him square in the eye. "It was an orientation day. They showed me the cafeteria and the men's room and then pointed me towards an aircraft. The rest, apparently, was on the job training."
"You'll find that's SOP." Webb continues to look at me steadily. "I hear you did well in the Philippines. You got away without crashing the damn plane. That's something."
"Any other assessment of my performance?" I ask sardonically.
Webb shakes his head. "I find it amazing you and O'Neil got out in one piece. First mission, non-field agents. More experienced agents have fallen victim to the jungles of the Philippines." He looks around, almost impatiently. The waitress seems more interested in one of the men over at the pool table rather than doing her job. "But then you've always had nine lives, haven't you, Rabb?"
I hate the way he smirks at me. Rex comes back and Webb orders a whiskey. The golden drink swirls in his glass. Webb licks his lips, looks at me again, long and contemplative.
"You're going to be fine, Commander."
"It's just *Harm* now."
"Sorry. Force of habit." Webb is elegantly casual. He's wearing a blue shirt, the first two buttons undone, and black slacks. For someone who took quite a beating from Sadik Fahd just a month ago, he looks good. Damn good. I take another drink. Sometimes life just isn't fair. "This isn't your type of place, Harm."
"Didn't think it was yours either."
"Sarah is worried about you."
I glance at him. "And?"
Webb shrugs. "I thought I'd let you know. It'd be nice if you returned phone calls. Not just hers, Harm, *anyone's*."
"I'll get right on that."
"Bitterness doesn't suit you."
I slide off the chair. The beer has left a warm feeling in my stomach. My mouth feels chalky, dry, and I grab the edge of the counter for support. Rex comes out of the kitchen, carrying a tray of burgers and fries. He doesn't look at Webb, doesn't look at me, walks right by us both. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the platinum blond waitress draping herself over the pool table, a cigarette dangling from her fingers. The song on the jukebox has changed. No more Elvis Presley; instead, we get Roy Orbison. The floor is sticky beneath my shoes and I wince as I take a step backwards, away from Webb. His expression doesn't change at all.
"You didn't answer my question," I tell him. "Why are you here?"
"I told you."
"I said all I had to say in Paraguay."
Webb stares into his drink. "You can't let yourself go weak, Harm. You can't let emotions get the better of you."
"Is that how you are?" I lean against the counter. Rex points at my now empty beer bottle, but I shake my head. It might only be a few blocks, but I still have to somehow get myself home.
"We're not talking about me."
I pulled a twenty out of my wallet. "I'm done," I tell Rex. "Thanks."
Outside, the air is a balmy fifty degrees, warm for this time of year, but I'm not complaining. I shove my hands into the pockets of my jeans and keep my head down. I've reached the corner when Webb calls my name.
"What?" It's hard to keep the annoyance out of my voice.
"If you need advice on what it's like, I can help you," Webb says. He is about twenty feet away, bathed in the light streaming out of the bar. "I've been in the CIA a long time. I can help you."
"I don't need your help, no thanks. Not unless I'm trying to get myself killed, in which case, you'd definitely be the first person I'd call."
"That's a low blow, Rabb."
I check both ways and cross the street. However, Webb is quicker than I ever gave him credit for; he catches up to me easily. I glare at him in annoyance.
"For what it's worth, I think you're a fine asset to the Agency," Webb says. He speaks calmly, confidently, not even a little bit out of breath. "You've been at JAG for a while. It's time for a change."
"Don't tell me what I need," I say. I don't bother to disguise my annoyance and I resume walking. The buildings on the left are all warehouses, some of them abandoned, others serving as antique shops and distribution centers. I can see the glow of the neon sign for my hotel from here. Just a block or two more, I think. I feel a perverse sense of satisfaction, imagining shutting the door in Webb's face. "Go back and tell Mac I'm fine."
"You think Sarah sent me?"
I stop. There's just a hint of breeze in the air, but cool enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Mac's the one who gets cold easily, not me. "You're here on your own?"
"And that surprises you?"
"We didn't exactly part on good terms." I frown. "Have we ever been on terms, Webb? Good or bad?"
"You like to ask a lot of questions, don't you?"
I resume walking. At this time of night, there's not a lot of traffic. Across the street, I see the warm glow of light from an Italian restaurant. I know the type from the storefront -- family-owned and operated since the 50s, smelling of oregano and basil, complete with homemade tomato sauce and red and white checked tablecloths. I'm suddenly and ravenously hungry. I look at my watch. Just after nine. Next to me, Webb matches me step for step.
"I'm not in the mood," I tell him.
He shrugs. "You've been through a lot."
"That's big of you."
"Paraguay, the Philippines." He stops, looks at me seriously. "It's a tough line of work, Harm, and you think you're invincible. You've walked through fire at least half a dozen times in the eight years I've known you, and I have to say, your survival has everything to do with pure dumb luck. The CIA is different. This job can get you killed."
"Thanks for the warning. I already signed the disclaimer, absolving the CIA of any obligation in the case of my untimely death." I shove my hands in my pockets, look across the street again at the restaurant. Webb follows my gaze.
"Dinner?" he asks.
I swallow. Yeah. I'm hungry, but not for company, at least not his. But sometimes, the need for sustenance overcomes pride. I slowly nod. Wordlessly, we both jog across the street and enter the restaurant. The hostess is a bright-eyed, pink-cheeked brunette, dressed in a black dress which hugs her every curve. She's tall, athletically-built, and she carries the menus pressed up against her chest. When she points us to our table, she smiles at me, and strands of her brown-black hair graze her cheek. I inhale sharply.
Webb orders a bottle of red wine. "To take away the edge," he says casually. I want to ask him about the 'edge', what it means when he says that. The waitress, a thin, reedy girl with red hair and freckled skin, wordlessly plunks a red plastic basket of hot bread in front of us. Webb and I both reach for a roll at the same time; I snatch my hand away just a second after his skin grazes mine. I break the roll apart, dipping it into the olive oil. Webb studies the menu. When the waitress comes back, I order cheese ravioli, Webb settles on veal parmesan. We both say no to appetizers. When the waitress -- according to her white plastic nametag, she is Gina -- takes away our menus, I grasp mine a second longer than necessary. Gina looks annoyed and I let go.
"Do you know where you're going next?" Webb asks casually.
"No. And if I did, couldn't tell you."
"No need to be secretive, Rabb. I've got top security clearance. I could find out."
"Well, why don't you do that then?" The crumbs from my dinner roll fall to the white ceramic plate, and a few make them on to my blue-jeaned lap. "Haven't you caused enough trouble as it is?"
"Are you talking about Sarah?"
"I'm talking about how you screwed up in Paraguay. How you almost got yourself killed. How you almost got Mac killed." I glare at him. "Both of you would have died out there."
"Is this where I thank you for saving my ass?" There is no heat in Webb's statement. He looks at me calmly, calculatedly, his eyes smoky and opaque. I hate him even more. "Are you looking for gratitude, Harm?"
"Not from you, I'm not."
"Ah, then this *is* about Sarah."
I look at him, annoyed. "No."
"You know what your problem is, Rabb?" Webb lifts his wine glass, swirls the cherry-red liquid, and then sniffs it appreciatively.
"I hear I have a whole long list of them. The women in my life tell me so," I say. It's hard to keep the bitterness out of my voice. I am suddenly very, very interested in what remains of my bread roll.
"You're not open to possibilities, you're not open to embracing what's available and taking advantage."
"Taking advantage is what *you* do, you opportunistic bastard," I answer a little too loudly. The couple at the next table over stares at us. I ignore them.
The waitress returns, fills our water glasses, and asks somewhat cheerily, "Is everything all right here?" We ignore her too.
Webb pushes his plate aside. "In my line of work," he says in that same irritatingly calm tone of voice, "'taking advantage' is a valuable tool of the trade. You'll learn that eventually."
I take a deep gulp of wine, not taking the time to be elegant or refined about it a la Webb. I wonder then if Webb has ever drank beer straight out of a can, out of a bottle. The thought of Webb drinking Bud Light makes me smile. I take another sip. And then another. The small lamps on the restaurant walls dance, the halo of light blurring at the edges. Another nice, long sip. The red and gold wallpaper design no longer appears sharply defined; I can no longer pick out the paisley shapes. I turn back to Webb.
"I don't want to end up like you," I say softly.
"I don't want to end up like me." For a moment, Webb appears stricken. Then he shakes his head. "I can't believe I said that." Soft, contemplative, emotional, vulnerable. I stare at him. The waitress plops our plates down in front of us and I pick up my silverware, but Webb is sitting absolutely still.
"Well?" I ask impatiently. I might like drinking beer out of a bottle every now and then, but I do have manners. I gesture at Webb's dinner plate. "Dig in."
Webb recovers his composure. "Sorry. I was thinking."
"About?" I ask out of genuine curiosity, not out of small talk. I figure, we've moved way past small talk now.
He curls his fingers around the stem of his wine glass. "That working in the CIA isn't for the light of heart." He glances at me. "That shouldn't be a problem for you, Rabb. You fairly thrive on practically getting yourself killed. The question is whether the CIA is going to put up with it."
"You're still with them," I point out.
"I'm good," he says simply. I let the comment go and dig into my ravioli. Webb waits a second and then follows suit. We finish the meal in silence and then idle over what's left of the red wine. When Gina comes back, we split the bill evenly, despite Webb's dinner having cost four dollars more than my entree. The wine is an even $30. When I mention my surprise, Webb shrugs.
"Life's too short for bad wine," he says. "Or whiskey." He leaves a generous tip for Gina and we walk out into the cool night. The air smells fresh, sharp, and I take a deep breath. I feel warm, a little giddy from the wine, and it's a beautiful night, the pinprick of bright stars against the black sky. Almost perfect, I think, until I look to my right and there's Webb. I think about making a joke, saying he's not as bad a date as I thought he'd be, but then I decide against it; Clayton Webb isn't quite known for his sense of humor. It unnerves me a little that he's staring back at me with an intensity I can't quite place. Finally he says, "You're drunk, Rabb."
"No." A little tipsy, I think, but certainly not drunk. I'm a big guy, and I can certainly hold my alcohol.
"I'll walk you to your hotel."
I start to object, but then trip over a crack in the sidewalk. Webb catches me by the elbow.
"Careful," he says. He sounds caring and his touch is light, supportive. "Don't be proud, Rabb. Let me walk you back. God knows how I'll explain to my superiors if you get yourself killed." He tips his head to the side. "You're just as mortal as the rest of us."
I say nothing, but find it very odd that Clayton Webb, of all people, has the audacity to lecture me. He's side-stepped danger more times than I can count and those are only the instances I know about. There's something admirable about a man so brave, one who can clearly walk into the line of fire every single time and not blink. I'd like to think I can do the same, but my sense of bravado is driven by adrenaline, my desire to *push*. For Clayton Webb, that kind of courage is ingrained, written on every cell in his body, part of his genetic pattern, hardwired into his DNA. And that's what makes him good, as much as I hate to admit it. He has 'it' and I hate him for that.
At the door to the hotel, Webb stops. "Have a good night, Rabb," he says casually.
Shaking his hand seems a little formal, a hug a little too intimate. After all, we're not exactly friends, and even the word 'colleagues' might be a bit of a stretch.
"Thanks," I say awkwardly. I fumble for my room key.
"Are you going to be all right?"
"Drink lots of water."
I stare at him in annoyance. Who would have guessed? Clayton Webb the mother hen. So much for the slick, smooth spy.
"I've had alcohol before," I tell him, the words blurring on my tongue. I lick my lips.
"You can't go to work with a hangover. You can't take the risk of losing your edge."
There's that word again. 'Edge'. The question lies on the tip of my tongue, and I want to push for more information, but instead I say, "Don't worry."
Webb glances off to the side, and then back at me. "You may not believe this or even accept it, but I do care about what happens to you, Harm." He pauses. "Take care of yourself." Then, a slight smile. "I'll check in on you every now and then."
"You don't have to," I say. "You can tell Mac I'm not her problem."
"You don't get it, do you? You're thicker than I thought you were." Webb takes a step closer to me. His hair is slightly mussed, standing up straight in the front. An almost rakish look, and I wonder why I never noticed this before. Then again, the grooming of men is not exactly something I notice on a regular basis. "I already told you. Sarah doesn't know I'm here. I came out here to look for you on my own. I won't tell her anything about what happened since you obviously don't want her to know." His eyes narrow, his lips turn up. "I can't say I'm *disappointed* you've cut off communications with her, but I need *you* to know I'm here as your friend. If it makes you feel better, think of me as your mentor. Can you accept that?"
I think for a second and then nod slowly in response. "Yeah."
Webb looks relieved. "Great," he says. He points down the road, in the direction of the bar. "I'll see you later."
I walk slowly into the hotel. The bellhop is a moving blur I pointedly ignore as I head to the elevator. My mouth tastes like tomato and wine, my clothes of smoke, and my skin feels flushed, warm. I punch the button for the fifth floor, lean back against the wall and stare into the mirror opposite me. I don't know whose idea it was to put mirrors in elevators, but damn if it wasn't a bad idea. My eyes are rimmed with red, the beginnings of bags beneath them. As I stare at my visage, I see silver hairs peeking out just above my right temple. I close my eyes until the elevator doors open and curse Webb for reminding me that I'm a man, nothing more, nothing less.
~ the end
Want more? The sequel, "Earth," is now available here.
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